Pros and Cons of an Environmental Lab Technician Career
Environmental lab technicians can work for employers in different fields. Read on for more pros and cons of this career.
|Pros of Being an Environmental Lab Technician|
|A favorable expected employment outlook (19% for the years 2012-2022)*|
|Opportunities for advancement*|
|Variety of workplaces (government, labs, consulting services, etc.)*|
|Opportunity to improve public health and the environment*|
|Cons of Being an Environmental Lab Technician|
|Some workers may need licenses in addition to education requirements to qualify for work*|
|May come into contact with dangerous substances, like chemical spills or harmful pollutants*|
|Need to be physically fit for fieldwork*|
|Some technicians work long hours*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Job Description and Duties
Environmental lab technicians work with scientists and engineers to monitor indoor and outdoor locations for the presence of environmental hazards or contaminants. They typically work for consulting companies or government agencies. Environmental lab techs work in the field collecting samples of soil, air and water, and then they test their samples in a laboratory. They use various analysis techniques to determine if there are pollutants or hazardous materials in their samples. Fieldwork may be physically stressful because you may need to lift and set up heavy equipment, and you might be on your feet for long periods.
Depending on where you work, you may be involved in assessing future construction sites to ensure that the land is not contaminated before construction begins, or you might be called on to help assess the environmental impact of the construction. You'll prepare reports of your findings.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
The BLS projected that jobs for environmental science and protection technicians would grow 19% during the 2012-2022 decade. This projection was based on the increasing importance of maintaining public health and keeping the environment clean. This was faster than the average job growth for the same period. In May 2014, the BLS reported that the median annual earnings for environmental science and protection technicians were about $42,000. The middle half of environmental lab technicians made annual wages between $33,000 and $55,000, and the highest paid workers made over $71,000.
Job Requirements for Technicians
Depending on the workplace, you may only need an associate's degree, but employers generally prefer a bachelor's degree. Coursework in environmental studies, chemistry, computer science, biology, statistics and other related topics may be useful.
If you are an entry-level technician, you may have to complete training on experimental methods and safety regulations. Additionally, some states require these technicians to have a license to perform certain job duties, like testing for radon. Typically, licensure involves meeting eligibility requirements and passing an exam.
You'll want to have the following skills and traits to be an effective environmental lab technician:
- Good communication skills (both in writing and speaking)
- Ability to work with fragile and sophisticated laboratory equipment
- Ability to work well on a team
- Ability to critically analyze data and information
- Be able to carry out instructions from supervisors
Job Postings from Real Employers
Job postings reveal that most employers are looking for environmental laboratory technicians with a bachelor's degree and some experience. Many employers prefer job candidates to have experience in specific types of laboratory tests and procedures, including water quality testing. Below is a sample of some real job postings from May 2012:
- A county water authority in New York sought an environmental lab technician to work in its lab testing the quality of water. The applicant needed to have a bachelor's degree in environmental science or a related field, and the employer preferred an applicant who had prior experience in testing water quality.
- A chemical manufacturer in North Carolina needed an environmental lab technician with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and at least three years of inorganic lab experience. The applicant needed to have knowledge of wet chemical analysis, inductively coupled plasma (ICP) spectrometry and the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP). Applicants were required to have North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) certifications, in order to work with environmental samples.
- An environmental company in Indiana advertised for an environmental lab technician with a bachelor's degree in biology, environmental science or a related field. The technician must be available for day, night and weekend shifts. The employer preferred an applicant who had at least 40 hours of Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) training, although this was not required. The technician would test for hazardous waste and perform neutralization procedures.
- An environmental lab in Pennsylvania needed an environmental lab technician who had a bachelor's degree in a science field. The applicant should have experience in wet chemistry, field sampling and chain of custody.
Standing Out from Other Applicants
One way you can stand out in the field is by garnering work experience in labs. This can be done through internships or other work programs that are offered by schools. Another way you can stand out is by becoming acquainted with HAZWOPER training. This training is especially important for technicians who plan on working in waste disposal and treatment.
Geological and Petroleum Technicians
If you like lab tech work but you prefer to search out minerals rather than pollutants, you might be interested in becoming a geological or petroleum technician. These workers help scientists find valuable natural resources. They install monitoring equipment and record data to aid engineers in extracting natural gas, oil or minerals. They need to have a high school diploma (or the equivalent), two years of training or an associate's degree to qualify for work. The BLS reported that these workers made a median annual salary of about $50,000 in May 2011, a slightly better salary than environmental lab techs. This career field was expected to have a 15% employment growth during the years 2010-2020, which was about average, according to the BLS.
If you're looking for a career that generally pays better than a technician job and you're willing to complete additional education, then you can become an environmental engineer. These engineers work in a field very similar to environmental lab technicians, but they focus on designing systems that benefit the environment and promote public health. These professionals need to have a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering or a related field. The BLS predicted that these workers would have a favorable employment growth for the decade 2010-2020, at about 22%. The BLS also stated that environmental engineers made median annual wages of about $79,000 in May 2011.