Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Environmental Technicians

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FAST FACTS

  • School Subjects: Biology, Chemistry
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Indoors and outdoors, One location with some travel
  • Minimum Education Level: Some postsecondary training
  • Salary Range: $23,600 to $38,090 to $70,000+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 029
  • GOE: 020502
  • NOC: 2231
  • O*NET-SOC: 19 2041 00, 19 4091 00

OVERVIEW

Environmental technicians, also known as pollution control technicians, conduct tests and field investigations to obtain soil samples and other data. Their research is used by engineers, scientists, and others who help clean up, monitor, control, or prevent pollution. An environmental technician usually specializes in air, water, or soil pollution. Although work differs by employer and specialty, technicians generally collect samples for laboratory analysis with specialized instruments and equipment; monitor pollution control devices and systems, such as smoke stack air “scrubbers”; and perform various other tests and investigations to evaluate pollution problems. They follow strict procedures in collecting and recording data in order to meet the requirements of environmental laws.

In general, environmental technicians do not operate the equipment and systems designed to prevent pollution or remove pollutants. Instead, they test environmental conditions. In addition, some analyze and report on their findings. There are approximately 31,000 environmental science and protection technicians, including health technicians, in the United States.

HISTORY

Stricter pollution control regulations of the mid-1960s to early 1970s created a job market for environmental technicians. As regulations on industry have become more stringent, the job has grown both in importance and in scope. For centuries, the biosphere (the self-regulating “envelope” of air, water, and land in which all life on earth exists) was generally able to scatter, break down, or adapt to all the wastes and pollution produced by people.

This began to change drastically with the industrial revolution. Beginning in England in the 1750s, the industrial revolution caused the shift from a farming society to an industrialized society. Although it had many economic benefits, industrialization took a terrible toll on the environment. Textile manufacturing and iron processing spread through England, and coal-powered mills, machines, and factories spewed heavy black smoke into the air. Rivers and lakes became open sewers as factories dumped their wastes. By the 19th century, areas with high population density and clusters of factories were experiencing markedly higher death and disease rates than areas with little industrial development.

The industrial revolution spread all over the world, including France in the 1830s; Germany in the 1850s; the United States after the Civil War; and Russia and Asia (especially Japan) at the turn of the century. Wherever industry took hold, there were warning signs that the bio sphere could not handle the resulting pollution. Smoke and smog hung over large cities from their many factories. Residents experienced more respiratory and other health problems. Manufacturing wastes and untreated sewage poisoned surface waters and underground sources of water, affecting water supplies and increasing disease. Wastes and pollution also seeped into the soil, affecting crops.

After World War IT, the development of new synthetic materials and their resulting waste products, including plastics, pesticides, and vehicle exhaust that are difficult to degrade (break down) worsened pollution problems. Fish and wildlife began to die because rivers and lakes were choked with chemicals and wastes. Scientists documented connections between pollution and birth defects, cancer, fertility problems, genetic damage, and many other serious problems.

Not until the mid-1960s to early 1970s did public outcry, environmental activism, and political and economic necessity force the passage of stricter pollution control laws. Federal environmental legislation mandated cleanups of existing air, water, and soil pollution, and began to limit the type and amount of polluting substances that industry could release into the environment. Manufacturers were required to operate within stricter guidelines for air emissions, wastewater treatment and disposal, and other polluting activities. States and municipalities also were given increasing responsibilities for monitoring and working to reduce levels of auto, industrial, and other pollution. Out of the need to meet these new requirements, the pollution control industry was born—and with it, the job of environmental technician.


An environmental technician records air pollution levels on the roof of a building with a mobile air pollution lab.

THE JOB

Environmental technicians usually specialize in one aspect of pollution control, such as water pollution, air pollution, or soil pollution. Sampling, monitoring, and testing are the major activities of the job. No matter what their specialty, environmental technicians work largely for or with government agencies that regulate pollution by industry. The following paragraphs describe specialties in the field.

Water pollution technicians monitor both industrial and residential discharge, such as from wastewater treatment plants. They help to determine the presence and extent of pollutants in water. They collect samples from lakes, streams, rivers, groundwater (the water under the earth), industrial or municipal wastewater, or other sources. Samples are brought to labs, where chemical and other tests are performed. If the samples contain harmful substances, remedial (cleanup) actions will need to be taken. These technicians also may perform various field tests, such as checking the pH, oxygen, and nitrate level of surface waters.

Some water pollution technicians set up monitoring equipment to obtain information on water flow, movement, temperature, or pres sure and record readings from these devices. To trace flow patterns, they may inject dyes into the water.

Technicians have to be careful not to contaminate their samples, stray from the specific testing procedure, or otherwise do something to ruin the sample or cause faulty or misleading results.

Depending on the specific job, water pollution technicians may spend a good part of their time outdoors, in good weather and bad, aboard boats, and sometimes near unpleasant smells or potentially hazardous substances. Field sites may be in remote areas. In some cases, the technician may have to fly to a different part of the country, perhaps staying away from home for a long period.

Water pollution technicians play a big role in industrial waste water discharge monitoring, treatment, and control. Nearly every manufacturing process produces wastewater, but U.S. manufacturers today are required to be more careful about what they discharge with their wastewater.

Some water pollution technicians specialize in groundwater, ocean water, or other types of natural waters. Estuarine resource technicians, for example, specialize in estuary waters, or coastal areas where fresh water and salt water come together. These bays, salt marshes, inlets, and other tidal water bodies support a wide variety of plant and animal life with ecologically complex relation ships. They are vulnerable to destructive pollution from adjoining industries, cities and towns, and other sources. Estuarine resource technicians aid scientists in studying the resulting environmental changes. They may work in laboratories or aboard boats, or may use diving gear to collect samples directly.

Air pollution technicians collect and test air samples (for example, from chimneys of industrial manufacturing plants), record data on atmospheric conditions (such as determining levels of airborne substances from auto or industrial emissions), and supply data to scientists and engineers for further testing and analysis. In labs, air pollution technicians may help test air samples or re-create contaminants. They may use atomic absorption spectrophotometers, flame photometers, gas chromatographs, and other instruments for analyzing samples.

In the field, air pollution technicians may use rooftop sampling devices or operate mobile monitoring units or stationary trailers. The trailers may be equipped with elaborate automatic testing systems, including some of the same devices found in laboratories. Outside air is pumped into various chambers in the trailer where it is analyzed for the presence of pollutants. The results can be recorded by machine on 30-day rolls of graph paper or fed into a computer at regular intervals. Technicians set up and maintain the sampling devices, replenish the chemicals used in tests, replace worn parts, calibrate instruments, and record results. Some air pollution technicians specialize in certain pollutants or pollution sources. For example, engine emission technicians focus on exhaust from internal combustion engines.

Soil or land pollution technicians collect soil, silt, or mud samples and check them for contamination. Soil can become contaminated when polluted water seeps into the earth, such as when liquid waste leaks from a landfill or other source into surrounding ground. Soil pollution technicians work for federal, state, and local government agencies, for private consulting firms, and elsewhere. (Some soil conservation technicians perform pollution control work.)

A position sometimes grouped with other environmental technicians is that of noise pollution technician. Noise pollution technicians use rooftop devices and mobile units to take readings and collect data on noise levels of factories, highways, airports, and other locations in order to determine noise exposure levels for workers or the public. Some test noise levels of construction equipment, chain saws, snow blowers, lawn mowers, or other equipment.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

In high school, key courses include biology, chemistry, and physics. Conservation or ecology courses also will be useful, if offered at your school. Math classes should include at least algebra and geometry, and taking English and speech classes will help to sharpen your communications skills. In addition, work on developing your computer skills while in high school, either on your own or through a class.

Postsecondary Training

Some technician positions call for a high school diploma plus employer training. As environmental work becomes more technical and complex, more positions are being filled by technicians with at least an associate’s degree. To meet this need, many com munity colleges across the country have developed appropriate programs for environmental technicians. Areas of study include environmental engineering technologies, pollution control technologies, conservation, and ecology. Courses include meteorology, toxicology, source testing, sampling, and analysis, air quality management, environmental science, and statistics. Other training requirements vary by employer. Some experts advise attending school in the part of the country where you’d like to begin your career so you can start getting to know local employers before you graduate.

Certification or Licensing

Certification or licensing is required for some positions in pollution control, especially those in which sanitation, public health, a public water supply, or a sewage treatment system is involved. For example, the Institute of Professional Environmental Practice offers the qualified environmental professional and the environmental professional intern certifications. See the end of this article for contact information.

Other Requirements

Environmental technicians should be curious, patient, detail-oriented, and capable of following instructions. Basic manual skills are essential for collecting samples and performing similar tasks. Complex environmental regulations drive technicians’ jobs; there fore, it’s crucial that they are able to read and understand technical materials and to carefully follow any written guidelines for sampling or other procedures. Computer skills and the ability to read and interpret maps, charts, and diagrams are also necessary.

Technicians must make accurate and objective observations, maintain clear and complete records, and be exact in their computations. In addition, good physical conditioning is a requirement for some activities, for example, climbing up smokestacks to take emission samples.

EXPLORING

To learn more about environmental jobs, visit your local library and read some technical and general-interest publications in environmental science. This might give you an idea of the technologies being used and issues being discussed in the field today. You also can visit a municipal health department or pollution control agency in your com munity. Many agencies are pleased to explain their work to visitors.

School science clubs, local community groups, and naturalist clubs can help broaden your understanding of various aspects of the natural world and give you some experience. Most schools have recycling programs that enlist student help.

With the help of a teacher or career counselor, a tour of a local manufacturing plant using an air- or water-pollution abatement system also might be arranged. Many plants offer tours of their operations to the public. This should provide an excellent opportunity to see technicians at work.

As a high school student, it may be difficult to obtain summer or part-time work as a technician due to the extensive operations and safety training required for some of these jobs. However, it is worthwhile to check with a local environmental agency, nonprofit environmental organizations, or private consulting firms to learn of volunteer or paid support opportunities. Any hands-on experience you can get will be of value to a future employer.

EMPLOYERS

Approximately 31,000 environmental science and protection technicians are employed in the United States. Many environmental technicians work for government agencies that monitor the environment, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Interior.

Water pollution technicians may be employed by manufacturers that produce wastewater, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, private firms hired to monitor or control pollutants in water or wastewater, and government regulatory agencies responsible for protecting water quality.

Air-pollution technicians work for government agencies such as regional EPA offices. They also work for private manufacturers producing airborne pollutants, research facilities, pollution control equipment manufacturers, and other employers.

Soil pollution technicians may work for federal or state depart ments of agriculture and EPA offices. They also work for private agricultural groups that monitor soil quality for pesticide levels.

Noise pollution technicians are employed by private companies and by government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

STARTING OUT

Graduates of two-year environmental programs are often employed during their final term by recruiters who visit their schools. Specific opportunities will vary depending on the part of the country, the segment of the environmental industry, the specialization of the technician (air, water, or land), the economy, and other factors. Many beginning technicians find the greatest number of positions available in state or local government agencies.

Most schools provide job-hunting advice and assistance. Direct application to state or local environmental agencies, employment agencies, or potential employers can also be a productive approach. If you hope to find employment outside your current geographic area, you may get good results by checking with professional organizations or by reading advertisements in technical journals, many of which have searchable job listings on the Internet.

ADVANCEMENT

The typical hierarchy for environmental work is technician (two years of postsecondary education or less), technologist (two years or more of postsecondary training), technician manager (perhaps a technician or technologist with many years of experience), and scientist or engineer (four-year bachelor of science degree or more, up to Ph.D. level).

In some private manufacturing or consulting firms, technician positions are used for training newly recruited professional staff. In such cases, workers with four-year degrees in engineering or physical science are likely to be promoted before those with two-year degrees. Employees of government agencies usually are organized under civil service systems that specify experience, education, and other criteria for advancement. Private industry promotions are structured differently and will depend on a variety of factors.

EARNINGS

Pay for environmental technicians varies widely depending on the nature of the work they do, training and experience required for the work, type of employer, geographic region, and other factors. Public sector positions tend to pay less than private-sector positions.

Earnings of energy conservation technicians vary significantly based on their amount of formal training and experience. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual salary for environmental science and protection technicians was $38,090 in 2006. Salaries ranged from less than $23,600 to more than $60,700. Technicians who worked for local government earned mean annual salaries of $43,050 in 2006; those who were employed by state government earned $43,810. Technicians who become managers or supervisors can earn up to $70,000 per year or more. Technicians who work in private industry or who further their education to secure teaching positions can also expect to earn higher than average salaries.

No matter which area they specialize in, environmental technicians generally enjoy fringe benefits such as paid vacation, holidays and sick time, and employer-paid training. Technicians who work full time (and some who work part time) often have health insurance benefits. Technicians employed by the federal government may get additional benefits such as pension and retirement benefits.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Conditions range from clean and pleasant indoor offices and laboratories to hot, cold, wet, bad-smelling, noisy, or even hazardous settings outdoors. Anyone planning a career in environmental technology should realize the possibility of exposure to unpleasant or unsafe conditions at least occasionally in his or her career. Employers often can minimize these negatives through special equipment and procedures. Most laboratories and manufacturing companies have safety procedures for potentially dangerous situations.

Some jobs involve vigorous physical activity, such as handling a small boat or climbing a tall ladder. For the most part, technicians need only to be prepared for moderate activity. Travel may be required; technicians travel to urban, industrial, or rural settings for sampling.

Because their job can involve a considerable amount of repetitive work, patience and the ability to handle routine are important. Yet, particularly when environmental technicians are working in the field, they also have to be ready to use their resourcefulness and ingenuity to find the best ways of responding to new situations.

OUTLOOK

Demand for environmental technicians is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. Those trained to handle increasingly complex technical demands will have the best employment prospects. Environmental technicians will be needed to regulate waste products; to collect air, water, and soil samples for measuring levels of pollutants; to monitor compliance with environ mental regulations; and to clean up contaminated sites.

Demand will be higher in some areas of the country than others depending on specialty; for example, air pollution technicians will be especially in demand in large cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, which face pressure to comply with national air quality standards. Amount of industrialization, stringency of state and local pollution control enforcement, health of local economy, and other factors also will affect demand by region and specialty. Perhaps the greatest factors affecting environmental work are continued man dates for pollution control by the federal government. As long as the federal government is supporting pollution control, the environmental technician will be needed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For job listings and certification information, contact:

Air & Waste Management Association

420 Fort Duquesne Boulevard

One Gateway Center, Third Floor

Pittsburgh, PA 15222-1435

Tel: 412-232-3444

Email: info@awma.org

http://www.awma.org

For information on the engineering field and technician certification, contact:

American Society of Certified Engineering Technicians

PO Box 1536

Brandon, MS 39043-1536

Tel: 601-824-8991

http://www.ascet.org

The following organization is an environmental careers resource for high school and college students.

Environmental Careers Organization

30 Winter Street

Boston, MA 02108-4720

Tel: 617-426-4783

http://www.eco.org

For information on environmental careers and student employment opportunities, contact:

Environmental Protection Agency

Ariel Rios Building

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20460-0001

Tel: 202-260-2090

Email: public-access@epa.gov

http://www.epa.gov

For information on certification, contact:

Institute of Professional Environmental Practice

600 Forbes Avenue

333 Fisher Hall

Pittsburgh, PA 152 82-0001

Email: ipep@duq.edu

http://www.ipep.org

For job listings and scholarship opportunities, contact:

National Ground Water Association

601 Dempsey Road

Westerville, OH 43081-8978

Tel: 800-551-7379

Email: ngwa@ngwa.org

http://www.ngwa.org

For information on conferences and workshops, contact:

Water Environment Federation

601 Wythe Street

Alexandria, VA 22314-1994

Tel: 800-666-0206

http://www.wef.org

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