The environmental consulting industry is quickly evolving, as many of the baby boomers responsible for the emergence of environmental awareness and regulations such as the Clean Water Act are approaching retirement age. With clean water and resource scarcity on the horizon, the next generation of scientists and engineers must be ready to take the helm. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the environmental consulting industry is expected to grow 15 percent between now and 2022—above the national average of 11 percent for other career paths. We sat down with Martha Mihaltses, an environmental project scientist with H2M, to discuss her career beginnings, the obstacles faced, and what the future might hold for someone with this position. Why did you choose environmental consulting as a career? Was there a driving motivation? When I was nearing completion of my undergraduate degree in geology, environmental consulting was a growing and lucrative field.
Since I already had a good deal of experience with soil sampling and geochemistry laboratory techniques, it seemed like the perfect fit. I was interested in rehabilitating and restoring contaminated sites, so I began looking for job opportunities in the field, focusing on environmental remediation. How did your education prepare you for your profession? What opportunities did you capitalize on that differentiated you from the competition in the workforce? The study of geology involves piecing together the history of the earth based on scientific observation of the world around us. Coursework in geology and environmental sciences taught me to think critically and gave me better spatial reasoning skills, which I have been able to use in my work daily. Off-campus geology and environmental science work provided me with valuable experience in mapping, field identification and sampling. I also worked in a geochemistry lab during the independent research portion of my studies. If you had never found your passion in geoscience, what else would you have done? I have always loved music and maybe would have pursued a career in music. I’ve kept music in my life as a hobby and enjoy singing with a few choral groups in my free time What are some of the obstacles you faced in this field as you transitioned from college into the workforce?
Personally, I found that building confidence was the biggest obstacle in the transition from college to the workforce. It took time to realize my value as a professional. Equipped with knowledge and experience derived from on-the-job training, I am able to confidently and effectively interact with clients, contractors, regulators and other environmental professionals. When someone begins their career as an environmental scientist, what should they expect? Beginning a career as an environmental scientist often means getting into the “nitty-gritty” of environmental science. You should expect to get dirty. You should expect to encounter hot, cold, windy, sunny, rainy or even snowy conditions in the field. You learn how to prepare yourself for days out in the field, and how to keep yourself organized and neat, even when conditions don’t lend themselves easily to organization. You learn important “foundation” skills such as field sampling and chain of custody procedures, proper note-taking, field observation skills and good communication. What were some of the most challenging aspects early in your career? The most challenging hurdle I ever had to clear was gaining the confidence to become an effective project manager. I have always been my biggest critic, and I came into the workforce a little unsure of myself. I was daunted by new and unfamiliar situations, but with the encouragement of my managers and the supportive environment at H2M, I became more and more confident in my ability to communicate with clients. Armed with some experience and knowledge, I became excited and determined instead of intimidated when faced with a challenge. Is there something you know now about this profession that you wish would have known before beginning your career? Before entering the workforce, my outlook on the environmental science industry was highly idealized. In my first few job interviews out of college, I used buzzwords and phrases like “sustainability,” “green technologies,” and “clean energy” and eagerly expected that I was going to help save the environment. I found that actually working in this field is much more complex.
Remediation projects are multi-faceted. In addition to meeting the goals of environmental regulators, you also need to consider budgetary and scheduling constraints and the interests of other involved parties. You need to be both persistent and patient, detail-oriented and goal-oriented. While it would have been helpful to know all of this when beginning my career, I have really enjoyed the process of learning the intricacies of the industry. I derive satisfaction from facing new challenges every day, and I still get to feel like I’m doing a small part to help save the environment. How do you view the future of environmental sciences as society becomes more self-aware of their daily impact on the environment? As you can imagine, environmental science is a burgeoning field, considering the increasing global commitment to environmental conservation.
There is a wealth of information available regarding how humans are negatively impacting the environment. Children are being educated about how their personal actions affect the environment and what they can do to help. I believe this industry will grow exponentially as these young, impassioned people continue enter the workforce. There is still so much to do to rectify mistakes we have made in the past that have negatively impacted the environment. What are your aspirations for the future? Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years? My next steps are going to involve obtaining a few more certifications to aid my professional growth and to add to my personal resume as well as H2M’s. I also look forward to advancing my career at H2M in the insurance market. I feel that there is huge growth potential, which I would like to be a part of uncovering. I will work toward becoming an integral member of the management team at H2M and helping the firm achieve its goals in the years to come.