Coastal Career Day Offers Reassurance and Advice

Participants at the Coastal Career Day sponsored by The Coastal Society

The first steps into any career can depend a lot upon the state of the economy, said speakers at The Coastal Society’s Coastal Career Day. While the economy has been slowly recovering from the 2008 recession, slow job growth and rising education costs have markedly changed the landscape for new professionals.

“If you have to take a job as an Uber driver to pay the bills, and volunteer on boards or within the community to gain the experience, that’s okay,” said Jon Torgan, director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Rhode Island, at The Coastal Society’s Coastal Career Day, held on November 18 at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. He explained to attendees that his path to his “dream job” at TNC, the world’s largest conservation organization, wasn’t easy.

Torgan described his early experience after college working at a fish processing plant to make the rent, but said he engaged in career building in other ways through canvassing for Clean Water Action and interning at Save The Bay – which evolved into leading the Save The Bay’s Bay Keeper program and becoming its director for advocacy. From there, he moved on to his current position at TNC, which he said builds upon and complements those earlier experiences. Torgan added his current position didn’t exist when he graduated from college: “Being a conservation leader wasn’t even a thing when I started,” he said, urging students to pursue a variety of avenues.

“There was also almost a collective sigh of relief from listening to the leaders in our fields telling us, basically, ‘It’s going to be ok, and it is probably going to be great.’”

This sentiment was echoed by other speakers representing regional and state agencies, advocacy groups, and consulting firms. They discussed their various paths through their careers to offer advice and help undergraduate and graduate students think broadly about possible career paths in areas such as marine science, coastal management, policy and planning, and other coastal-related fields. And while attendees expressed some concern about future employment in these fields, speakers encouraged students to be open to all opportunities, even those seemingly unrelated to their goals.

“The opportunities are there, but they may be packaged differently,” said Tom Bigford, policy director for the American Fisheries Society. “It’s a great opportunity to think about diversifying and broadening yourself.”

This was the case for Sailors for the Sea Education Director Shelley Brown, who received a doctoral degree focused on microbial ecology in coastal marine environments but discovered a love for outreach and education after teaching Girl Scouts about DNA. This passion was solidified after joining an education team on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater for a season to teach people about the river, water quality, and local ecology.

“Ocean conservation is human conservation. It’s more important, now, for people to understand these issues,” she said, explaining that taking advantage of those early opportunities helped put her right where she wants to be to help bridge the gap between scientists and the public so that people can better understand the great research that is going on, adding that her science background is a great asset to do just that.

Other speakers also said that non-government organizations, as well as private industry, may be the future areas of growth in jobs in environmental sciences and policy. History has demonstrated the need for, and resiliency of, professionals in these fields, said Dennis Nixon, Rhode Island Sea Grant director, responding to students’ fears regarding employment opportunities in such fields given today’s political climate.

“We aren’t going to slide back because we’ve done too much good,”  he said, noting that many of the most prominent organizations and institutions have weathered adversity in the past and still hold strong employment potential. Betsy Nicholson, NOAA’s Northeast lead for the Coastal Services Center, reiterated this point, noting that nearly 70 percent of NOAA’s workforce is set to retire within the next decade.

Prospective employers meet with students in small groups to discuss careers and resumes.

Prospective employers meet with students in small groups to discuss careers and resumes.

Only 10 percent of jobs for environmental professionals are advertised, said Nixon, stressing to students the importance of networking and pursuing opportunities to broaden skills and experience in order to be adaptable and flexible as the world changes. Other speakers added the importance of partnerships and working together because “no one is solving anything alone,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council.

“The messages were pretty positive,” said Emily Patrolia, a board liaison for The Coastal Society, as well as a consultant at ESP Consulting, who will be placed as a Sea Grant Knauss Fellow in Washington, D.C., beginning 2017. She noted that the event went beyond strictly offering career advancement advice. “There was also almost a collective sigh of relief from listening to the leaders in our fields telling us, basically, ‘It’s going to be ok, and it is probably going to be great.’”

“The speakers were very encouraging about employment opportunities in coastal management and fisheries-related careers,” said Clara Decerbo, a GIS and emergency planning intern at Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and a Ph.D. candidate at URI whose research focuses on emergency response and hazard mitigation. She added that speakers stressed the importance of these jobs as climate change impacts become more prevalent. “In these uncertain times, it was comforting to hear the perspectives and insights of professionals who have been in the field for decades.”

The Coastal Society’s Coastal Career Day was sponsored by the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Marine Affairs, TRC consulting firm, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Coastal Resources Center, OSA Aquarium Design Studio, Deepwater Wind, and VHB consulting.

 

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