Special Report

Green workers: content but cash-strapped

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Special Report: Environmental Careers Guide


Most environmental professionals saw their real earnings stagnate or fall during the past year. David Carr analyses the results of the IEMA-ENDS survey of more than 2,000 environmental professionals

That the UK labour market took a turn for the worse in 2009 is beyond dispute. Amid a deep recession that is only now ending, unemployment approached 2.5 million, aggregate employment dipped and vacancies in many sectors simply dried up.

But while recession has scarred much of the economy, the scale of job losses has been partially mitigated by short-time working, pay cuts, wage restraint or pay review deferrals. Labour market flexibility has also helped and fears that unemployment would soar above 3 million have diminished. It was a level exceeded after each of the early 1980s and early 1990s recessions, but unemployment is expected to peak at ‘only’ 2.8 million this year.

Green jobs have not escaped the wider carnage. Growth has continued in some sectors, but others have been hard hit, particularly those linked to construction and development. Environmental consultancies also came under pressure last year, with many forced to lay off staff or introduce flexible working patterns to stay afloat (ENDS Report 413, p 8).     

IEMA-ENDS survey

Against this backdrop, and in association with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), ENDS carried out its ninth annual survey of environmental professionals in November and December 2009. IEMA members and ENDS Report readers were invited to participate via an on-line survey.

In autumn 2008, 910 environmental professionals responded to ENDS’ annual careers survey. This time, primarily as a result of IEMA’s additional input, more than 2,000 replied. The respondents came from both the private and public sectors and the percentage split between men and women was 60:40.

Some meaningful comparisons with past ENDS careers surveys can be made because the types of professionals surveyed have remained largely the same and the geographic and gender distributions are similar.1 However, the wider sample size and different methodology employed this time should be borne in mind.

Most respondents (87%) describe themselves as “employees”, with 6% being self-employed and 2% contract workers. The rest were either retired, partially retired, unemployed and seeking employment or students receiving a grant or reduced pay from an employer.   

 Categorised by their employer’s main activity, the largest group comprises the 26% working for a consultancy, or provider of professional, scientific and technical services. Of other large groupings, 11% work in manufacturing; a further 11% are in construction and 8% work in public administration.

Table 1: Main activity of respondents' employers
Table 1: Main activity of respondents' employers
One in 20 are employed in oil and chemicals, with the remainder spread across a range of sectors, including electricity, transport, education, NGOs, real estate services, waste and remediation,  and water and sewerage (see table 1).

The sample is also geographically diverse. A quarter of respondents are based in London and the south-east; 13% are midlands-based and 12% are in Scotland. A tenth are in the north-west, 9% in the south-west, 6% in Yorkshire and the Humber, 6% in the east of England, 4% in Wales and 3% in the north-east. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, elsewhere in Europe or further afield account for the rest.

Almost three in five work in large organisations with more than 500 staff. A quarter work in medium-sized organisations of 51-500 staff. Just 17% are employed by organisations with 50 or fewer employees. And despite the recession, three fifths of respondents said employment remained stable at their workplaces last year. Those reporting job cuts at their organisation (20%) were matched by those reporting jobs growth (21%).

Moreover, despite the sluggish outlook for the broader labour market, there appears to be some optimism among environmental professionals as to 2010 job prospects. Almost half think the number of opportunities in the sector will stay largely unchanged this year. More than a third foresee growth, while 16% expect to see a decline.  

Main job functions

Table 2: Position within an organisation's hierarchy
Table 2: Position within an organisation's hierarchy
Respondents came from the full organisational hierarchy (see table 2). Just over a quarter described themselves as a project or middle manager, 23% said they were in a specialist or technical role, 16% were senior managers, 12% officers, 7% senior officers and 6% juniors or graduate trainees. At the other end of the scale, 9% described themselves as a director and 3% as an associate or partner.       

Table 3: Respondent's main professional activities
Table 3: Respondent's main professional activities
Categorised by the nature of the individual’s professional activity, the survey revealed a wide spread of tasks undertaken (see table 3). When asked to indicate the main activities applicable to their role, 44% cited environmental management (EMS). More than a third cited waste management or recycling and 29% noted environmental protection, regulation or legislation.

A quarter mentioned health, safety and environmental (HSE) management, or sustainable development. Auditing, verification and assurance was cited by 23%, as was environmental education and training and environmental impact assessment and planning.

Just under a fifth said carbon management, energy or climate change and greenhouse gas management was one of their main activities. Pollution control and risk assessment were each cited by 18% of respondents.

Other activities noted included: corporate policy, CSR or communications (16%), environmental due diligence (13%), wastewater or water resource management (13%), construction (12%), ecology, biodiversity, wildlife or nature conservation (12%), hazard risk management (12%), contaminated land remediation (11%) and sustainable procurement (10%). 

For the first time, we also polled respondents as to who is responsible for managing their organisation’s environmental impacts. More than a third (35%) said this was their main responsibility. Of these, three quarters said this encompassed all aspects, including carbon, greenhouse gases and climate change. One fifth said they were responsible for managing some aspects, but not carbon, greenhouse gases and climate change. Just 4% said they were responsible for managing only the carbon, greenhouse gases and climate change aspects.

The latter finding is striking because it reveals that even among a sample of more than 700 professionals whose main responsibility is managing their organisation’s environmental impacts, carbon management seems to be emerging only slowly as a distinct profession, if at all.

The recession also appears to have sharpened some organisations’ environmental focus. When asked, “What effect has the recession had upon the environmental agenda in your organisation?”, more than a fifth (22%) of respondents said it had become more important over the past year. This is twice as many as those who said it had slipped down their organisation’s priority list. Two thirds said it had made no difference.    

Age and experience

Fig 1:Age of environmental professionals
Fig 1:Age of environmental professionals
The age profile of respondents indicates the fairly youthful nature of today’s environmental professionals (see figure 1). Almost a quarter are in their 20s; more than two fifths are under 35 years and just over two thirds are under 45. One in five are aged 45-54, with the 55-59 bracket comprising 7% of the sample and those aged 60+ the remaining 4%.    

Fig 2: Years' experienced in environmental field
Fig 2: Years' experienced in environmental field
This age profile is reflected in the experience profile (see figure 2). Seven in ten said their experience as an environmental professional amounted to ten years or less; two in five have clocked up no more than five years.

In contrast, a sizeable minority (one in seven) have 15 or more years’ experience as an environmental professional, providing a bedrock of long-term experience in the field.

Fig 3: Permanent environmental positions held
Fig 3: Permanent environmental positions held
The age and experience profile is also reflected in the number of permanent positions held (see figure 3). More than a third have held just one permanent environmental position in their career; a further one in four has held just two. In fact, 80% of respondents said their careers to date have comprised three or fewer permanent environmental positions.

Fig 4: How employees heard about their jobs
Fig 4: How employees heard about their jobs
Just over a fifth of respondents said the vacancy for their current role arose internally (see figure 4). A further 16% said they heard about it via ‘word of mouth’ or personal contacts. But many heard about the vacancy through external sources: recruitment agencies introduced 13% of respondents to their role, head-­hunters a further 8%.

Recruitment advertising has also paid dividends for many. One in seven said they learned of the vacancy in this way: 9% through a national or local press advert and 6% via one placed in a specialist publication. A speculative letter and CV was the way in for 5% of respondents, while company websites (6%), internet job boards (5%) and ‘other’ channels (11%) accounted for the remainder.  

Qualifications and training          

However they found their current role, the typical environmental professional is highly qualified. Nine in ten are educated to at least degree level: almost half said their highest level of academic qualification was a masters degree, while 5% have a doctorate.

Many have also acquired specialist professional qualifications: 26% of respondents are IEMA registered auditors and 23% are chartered environmentalists, having gained the CEnv qualification (ENDS Directory 2010, pp 7-9). Six per cent are chartered engineers (CEng) and a further 18% are chartered in another discipline. Twelve per cent are IEMA registered EIA practitioners.  

Membership of professional bodies was also commonplace among respondents. Not surprisingly, given the body’s input to the survey, most were IEMA members. According to their particular discipline, respondents were also commonly members of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the Institution of Ecology and Environmental Management, the Institution of Environmental Sciences or the Energy Institute.

And despite many employers facing tighter budgets over the past year, financial support for training and development has remained largely intact. Three quarters of respondents said their employer offered this form of support, while a fifth said they received no such assistance. The remainder said the question was not applicable to them.   

The high incidence of employers supporting professional development is reflected in the number undertaking formal training; almost two thirds (63%) said they had undertaken this in the past year. Of those that had not, a quarter said the lack of employer support was the main reason. One fifth said the format of their preferred training course did not suit their work patterns and 12% said there was a lack of training available at the required level.

One in ten said their current role did not require them to update their skills or knowledge through training. Just over a third replied “none of the above” when describing the reason underlying their lack of formal training in 2009.

Pay trends

Fig 5: Current salary bands
Fig 5: Current salary bands
Respondents were also asked to indicate their current salary band (see figure 5). The largest proportion (17%) said their salary was in the £30,000-34,999 range. A further 16% were in the £25,000-29,999 bracket and 15% said they earned £35,000-39,999. Almost half of those who responded were thus in the £25,000-39,999 salary band, one in five earned less than £25,000 and the remaining third earned £40,000 or more.

For comparison, Environment Analyst’s 2009 environmental professionals career and salary survey found an average basic salary across the sector of £39,500, with two in five earning less than £30,000 and just over a fifth earning more than £50,000.2

But when compared with senior professionals in other sectors, those in the environmental field fare less well. Indicative data from recruitment consultant, Michael Page International, suggests that UK human resources and London-based legal professionals, for example, earn average annual salaries of £52,000 and £95,000, respectively.

Fig 6: Change to salary during the past year
Fig 6: Change to salary during the past year
And like those in other sectors, environmental professionals’ pay rises have been thin on the ground of late. Respondents were asked how their salary had changed over the past year, inclusive of any changes to their role (see figure 6). Nearly one in ten said their pay had been cut, some in line with reduced working hours.   

More than a third had their pay frozen (they were awarded a 0% ‘rise’) and a further 6% had their pay review deferred. A fifth received a pay rise of 2% or less last year.   

And with the rate of consumer price inflation averaging 2% in 2009, almost three quarters (73%) of environmental professionals saw their pay stagnate or fall in real (inflation adjusted) terms last year. One in ten enjoyed a pay rise of 3-4%, but only a handful saw their pay rise by more than this.

This represents a sharp turnaround from autumn 2008. Then, more than a quarter of those polled said they had received a pay rise of 3-4% in the previous year, while 15% had enjoyed a 5-6% rise. Just a fifth had seen their pay fall or remain frozen at that time.

Bonuses have been non-existent for most, too. The environmental sector has never been a major payer of bonuses, but 61% said they had received no bonus at all in the past year. One in ten said their 2009 bonus was worth just 1-2% of their salary. Bonuses of 3-5% of salary were received by one in eight respondents. In 2008, half of respondents said they had received a bonus, with a third receiving one worth 1-9% of their salary.

But while pay and bonuses have been squeezed, holiday allocation remains reasonable for most. All bar 4% of respondents said they received at least 20 days of annual leave. Most (54%) receive 20-25 days, with 31% getting 25 exactly. Three in ten enjoy 26-30 days, with the remaining 11% receiving 31 days or more.  


Fig 7: Employee benefits received
Fig 7: Employee benefits received
Most environmental professionals also enjoy additional benefits, boosting their package accordingly. And while costly for employers, the pattern of benefits provision appears to have hardly shifted over the past year, despite many facing something of a financial crunch (see figure 7, page 11).  

Just over three quarters of respondents said a pension scheme was part of their current package. But reflecting the wider trend in occupational pensions provision, just a third said this was a final salary scheme. Forty four per cent said the pension in their current package was another type of scheme. In the 2008 survey, 36% of respondents noted a final salary scheme and 45% another type of scheme.

This time, just over half said a mobile phone formed part of their benefits package, while 47% cited a computer, laptop or palmtop. The option to work from home was the next most common benefit, noted by two in five respondents.

That seems unusually high, but while home-working may be an option for many environmental professionals, not all will take it up. A 2008 Department for Transport survey of all workers revealed that just 3% always worked from home, 7% did so at least once a week and 5% at least once a month. Seventy-eight per cent said they were unable to do so at all.3

Among environmental professionals, the next most widely cited benefits were health insurance (38%) and flexitime (31%). A quarter cited a performance-related bonus, while employee share options were enjoyed by 15%. Some 8% mentioned an employee profit share scheme; the same proportion citing performance-related pay. Seven per cent cited another type of bonus scheme. A car allowance or company car was received by 18% and 17% of respondents, respectively.

A wide range of other benefits also formed part of some respondents’ packages, including crèche facilities or childcare vouchers (9%), paid overtime (8%), gym membership (8%), ‘other’ insurances (8%) and lunches or luncheon vouchers (4%). A tradable benefits package was available for 7%, while 6% said their package did not include any of the benefits listed.

But while most received at least some benefits, the pre-tax value varied widely. Of those able to attach a monetary value to their benefits package, the lowest was a mere £6 and the highest £100,000. The median benefits package was worth £4,000 last year, with half falling in the £1,200-6,500 range. Benefits worth more than £10,000 were enjoyed by just one in ten respondents last year.

Staff stay put

Fig 8: Time with current employer
Fig 8: Time with current employer
Most environmental professionals (86%) have been with their current employer for at least a year. Seventeen per cent have clocked up between one and two years’ service and 69% have stayed put for longer (see figure 8).

More than a third (36%) have been with their current employer for five years or more and 18% have ten years or more of uninterrupted service under their belts. These results suggest a relatively low degree of staff turnover at many organisations. This may be a function of the broader economic climate, with staff reluctant, or unable, to move jobs during trying times. But it also reflects a sense of contentment among the majority of employees, most of whom appear happy to remain with their employer for a protracted period.

Indeed, when asked, “How do you feel about your current job?”, one third of respondents said, “I really enjoy it”. A further 36% described themselves as “content”, while 19% said they were “neutral”. Only one in ten said they were “not very happy” and a further 2% said they “dislike” their current role.

That environmental professionals feel largely contented and motivated in their jobs is further evidenced by the finding that four in five have a sense of being able to make an environmental difference within their organisation. An even greater proportion (86%) feel they can make an environmental difference to society, given their professional skills – an encouragingly high proportion.

Two in five do not anticipate changing jobs in the foreseeable future. But 11% have itchy feet and are looking to change jobs within six months. A further 15% expect to move within a year, a further 16% within two years. The remainder consider a move within 3-5 years to be likely.

Fig 9: Why employees would change their job
Fig 9: Why employees would change their job
And while most appear to be at least content in their jobs, respondents were also asked to cite up to three main reasons why they might leave their current employer (see figure 9). Half said the prospect of a better salary or benefits would be a reason, 31% cited job prospects or more responsibility and 29% cited the range of interesting work.

A quarter would move because of the location, while 22% and 20%, cited “management style” and “undervalued by management”, respectively, as key reasons for moving on. Interestingly, just 12% cited “career change” as being among their three main reasons for leaving; further evidence that environmental professionals are, on the whole, content in their chosen field.