Thursday, August 23, 2012

5 Ways to Jump Start Your Environmental Career

Or, Making the Best of a Slow Economy!

I’ve been in the Environmental field for more than 35 years now.  I’ve mentored many subordinates, co-workers, students, and friends along the way. I’ve been a Selecting Official for most of my career. It is based on these experiences that I suggest the following ways to jump start your environmental career. Anyone can do them and the benefits will definitely pay off, if you do!
  •   Keep Your Options Open
  •    Volunteer/Intern
  •     Network! 
  •     Follow-Up
  •     Enhance your Resume
Keep Your Options Open.  Environmental jobs run the gamut, from non-profits, to Americorps, VISTA, private industry, consultancies, and government employment. Look for all opportunities, including temporary, 1-4 year positions (called “TERM” in the federal government), contracts, part-time (if you can work shorter hours), etc. These are “foot in the door” positions and when it comes time for a permanent vacancy to be filled, you will be a known entity – that gives you a “leg up” on your competition!

Volunteer/Intern. Think about where you ultimately want to work. Then look around for opportunities to volunteer or intern – often, you’ll have to make these “opportunities” yourself.  Contact local offices and agencies, offer your services, present to them how you can be of value to them.  Most federal and state agencies accept volunteers, and many allow weekend or virtual work.  And be persistent – some individuals have never had an intern or volunteer before, so you may need to sell the idea. The benefits of volunteering or interning are outstanding – you get experience and make the contacts you’ll need to enter the field when you graduate. For federal employment, remember that volunteer time counts the same as paid work time for the same job!

Network!  Use Social media, join local environmental groups, join Student Chapters of professional organizations in your field of interest (TWS, NAEP, and others). A great site to join and use as a professional resume page is  LinkedIn is considered a professional networking site and many environmental firms advertise there. An interesting fact is that the average income of LinkedIn members is $105,000/year, so you will be in a much more exclusive “club” than on more socially-focused communities. Joining local environmental groups is also important, as they often have social events or work days that allow you to meet like-minded local folks that are often connected to the companies or organizations for which you want to work. Finally, join professional organizations and attend sponsored networking events. Have professional business cards made up with your name and contact information/phone number in the event that you want to pass them out when you meet individuals at these events.

Follow-Up - Use ‘not qualified’ / ‘not referred’ / or ‘not selected’ experiences to contact Human Resources Specialists (HR) and identify gaps in your experience or qualifications. Too often, I hear about individuals sending out many resumes and hearing nothing, or worse, receiving only rejection notices. But that is not the time to shrug and walk away. Take the opportunity to call the HR folks and ask sincerely how to improve your resume or qualifications for the next opening or vacancy. Find out if there is some training or experience you need to become more competitive. In other words, use the experience of not making the cut into valuable experience for the next time! I have heard many stories from students that they were able to refocus their efforts after having that discussion and were picked up in subsequent positions, as a result. Feedback is essential to improving your competitiveness in challenging economic times!

Enhance your Resume. This is particularly important for those that are changing careers or have little to no experience in the field in which they hope to work. Look for online or free training, local workshops (build a rain garden, learn local plants/trees, etc.), FEMA courses, Open Source College courses, and other free training or learning opportunities to add to your resume. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosts a free online Watershed Management Certificate.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hosts the Emergency Management Institute, which has free online disaster response courses, including some dealing with hazardous materials management, NEPA compliance post-disaster, and others.  Don’t forget to show honors/awards, training, courses completed, student activities and memberships, etc., on your resume. These headings broaden your resume, and give the Selecting Official more information about who you are and what you have to offer. Further, remember that a federal resume is not held to the one or two pages of the standard business resume. If you can add more to your resume (but not more than 3 or 4 pages), it’s important to do so. Don’t forget to provide the title of your thesis or capstone, if you completed one. If you only have education and no experience, summarize the relevant courses that you completed and the titles of relevant research papers or projects. Sometimes you may just have to make your education substitute for experience – that is fine, if you do it well and professionally!

I hope these tips are helpful – good luck in your pursuit of an environmental career!

Dr. Carol A. Pollio
Director, Capstone EcoServices

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