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Today's environmental health graduates: the next generation of professionals.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the typical environmental health professional, then more often called a sanitarian, was trained generally in the chemical and biological sciences. As generalists, responsible for a wide range of traditional programs such as food protection, solid waste, vector control and others, sanitarians were able to apply the fundamental principles of science during the inspections, the investigations, and the regulatory activities they were called on to perform.

A major first step in the evolution of the environmental health professional was a requirement to become a Registered Sanitarian (R.S.) or Registered Environmental Health Specialist (R.E.H.S.). Some states have maintained the registration requirement. In addition, the NEHA R.S./R.E.H.S. credential is recognized by many agencies and organizations as assurance of basic competence in environmental health. More recently, the NEHA continuing education requirement became a part of the certification process. Undergraduate programs in environmental health have also evolved to produce fundamentally sound entry-level professionals.

Today's environmental health professionals arrive from college armed with a foundation in science that is augmented with practical experience from an internship with a government agency or a business. This next generation has been trained in problem solving and communication. They understand how current technology supports their work. They often arrive at their first job with a vision about the future of environmental health and a clear idea of how they hope to contribute to making that vision a reality. Sanitarians of the past usually depended on a mix of undergraduate courses in the sciences with little focus on issues important to environmental health, Their practical skills were developed through on-the-job experience. Our environmental health curricula have effectively combined theory and practice, enabling today's professionals-in-training to learn from the experiences of sanitarians of the past before they arrive on the job.

Many individuals entering the environmental health profession today have graduated from accredited undergraduate environmental health programs and quickly demonstrate the value of those programs. Degrees in environmental health offered by high-quality undergraduate institutions clearly have enabled our workforce to evolve to a new level of competence. The challenge to our profession is to ensure that there are jobs with salaries adequate to attract these graduates to environmental health in government and industry. The continued success of our schools depends on it. The future of our profession depends on it.

Although I'm confident that placement of environmental health graduates is currently at an all-time high, that confidence is tempered by the realization that the profession has yet to fully endorse the notion that such a degree should at least get a preference in hiring, if not be required - particularly at the entry level. Many acknowledge that notion as a good idea but then wonder how they can be expected to hire only environmental health graduates.

Of course, many managers are trained to think of ways not to change the status quo. In keeping with how the media currently addresses such issues, I was able to identify the 10 top reasons why the time is not right to be like the lawyers; doctors, nurses, and engineers who require that future professionals be trained in the discipline they will be expected to succeed in.

Reason #10: They selected environmental health as their intended career, and it's not fair to challenge the many of us who got here because we didn't know what else to do.

Reason #9: You learned to identify violations and enforce laws. These young kids today will merely try to develop rapport with clients and work toward voluntary compliance. They are afraid just to go after a license anymore.

Reason #8: Today's graduates rely far too much on good communication skills. The more you talk to a client the more questions you have to answer. Then they challenge your perspective on an issue and expect you to have a basis for your position.

Reason #7: They learned about things like pollution prevention, presentation skills, mediation, and facilitation. How are those things relevant to agencies or businesses today?

Reason #6: It's easier to train new employees your way. if they come in with good problem solving skills, field experience, knowledge of laws and regulations, and interpersonal skills training, will take longer because they will need to relearn things your way.

Reason #5: An enthusiastic and competent environmental health graduate will play havoc with organizational apathy and complacency. It's always a problem when the new kid wants to challenge things the way things have been done for years.

Reason #4: You have probably had them as interns, and the challenge of hiring is diminished. You know their skills, how they fit in the organization, and if they meet your objectives. Human Resources will give you a hassle if you try to hire them now.

Reason #3: You work for the government, and everyone knows those EH grads will go to industry for the big money, so why try to hire them?

Reason #2: There is no reason to have environmental health graduates knocking on your door because they heard your agency is very progressive and encourages employees to excel. You would rather strive for mediocrity, struggle for credibility in the community, and complain about how your profession never gets the attention those doctors, lawyers, engineers, and industrial hygienists do.

Reason #1: The best reason not to hire environmental health graduates is.that you are afraid they may really be as good as advertised, and your fellow professionals who know better will say they told you so, and you will lose the bet.

We have supported the development of many high-quality environmental health programs in our accredited schools. Through internships, many agencies and organizations have come to know first hand the competence and potential of such students.

The 10 reasons listed above obviously are intended to demonstrate that there really is no good reason for not hiring candidates who have spent four years preparing themselves to be environmental health professionals. My personal experience suggests that our agency's hiring preference for EH graduates has resulted in a staff that ranks high in creativity, productivity, competence, and willingness to meet any challenge. Our future depends on the continual infusion of new environmental professionals who have the training and aptitude to meet new challenges while not forgetting the principles and problems that got them nearly to the 21st century. Our undergraduate EH programs are now attracting and training some of the best and brightest prospects our profession has seen. Everyone I have talked with who is associated with the schools comments on the fact that EH schools are no longer settling for average students who are not sure what major they prefer. Those schools are recruiting top students who specifically want to graduate from an environmental health program.

It is now up to us to support EH programs by finding ways for graduates to bring their skills and their enthusiasm into the workplace. There they can make a difference in solving day-to-day problems, keep our profession visible and credible, and show that we are ready to meet new challenges.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Environmental Health Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Wiant, Chris J.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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