Expected retirees may open jobs for environment students

Branden Peterson

In more than 25 years at the College of Natural Resources, Phil Splett has seen the ups and downs of the job market for his students. Yet, the current situation poses a huge opportunity for some students to step into the natural resources workforce.

Representing 67 universities in the United States, The National Association of Professional Forestry Schools and Colleges uncovered a trend at its annual meeting in October. Natural resource workers are getting older, and their expected retirement in the next several years will open doors for many qualified workers now attending school.

The U.S. Forest Service reports 42 percent of its professional staff will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. The Environmental Protection Agency expects 47 percent of its staff to retire during the same time period. The Natural Resource Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey anticipate similar opportunities to become available, with 28 percent and 47 percent of staff retiring.

The College of Natural Resources administrators believe now is a good time for students to get involved with the college, earn a degree and help fill the void left behind by wide amounts of retirees.

The problem is Minnesota’s statewide government hiring freeze; even if all those employees retire, no one can take their places.

Splett, career services coordinator for the College of Natural Resources, said he thinks the job market is improving in all fields and is expected to continue throughout the next decade.

Of the tracks the college offers, students in paper science and forestry have fared best in the workforce. But fisheries and wildlife majors, which make up a large portion of the college, are having a much harder time.

University graduate Jesse Maloney, who focused on recreation and resource management, scoured the Twin Cities for four months last May looking for a job. With a pregnant wife and one child, Maloney couldn’t afford to keep looking for a natural resource job forever. Now he wakes up before sunrise to help manage a bakery in St. Anthony Park.

Because they couldn’t find jobs either, some of Maloney’s friends from the college now attend graduate school in hopes for employment at a later date.

“I’ve heard this ever since I’ve started,” Maloney said about the potential for job opportunities. “It’s not the college’s fault. I think they’re telling the truth. There are opportunities out there, but it’s just not happening right now. It should in the next few years.”

Senior fisheries and wildlife student Jacob Tennis agrees that opportunities are available – just not in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

“If you’re flexible in moving, the opportunities are out there,” he said. “Students should also be patient; more jobs will free up. Retirement isn’t in full effect yet.”

College of Natural Resources senior class representative Leah Dornfeld agrees.

“What I find is that other states seem to be hiring, but in Minnesota, not so much,” she said.

Outside the state government hiring freeze, students looking for local employment face another problem: competition. Students from across the country frequently focus on the Twin Cities for their job searches.

“The Twin Cities area is very attractive for anyone. You get a lot of people wanting to stay, but our students have competition with students from across the nation who want to work here too,” Splett said.

Susan Stafford, College of Natural Resources dean, said she often speaks with colleagues about how to get more students to fill the large amount of jobs across the country. She said she understands the desire to stay in the Twin Cities, but if students are willing to look elsewhere, they’ll likely be more successful.

“If students are flexible and willing to move and willing to look broadly over many jobs, I think the opportunities are there,” Stafford said. “If they think narrowly, constraining themselves to exactly one place of where they want to work, or only looking for one job, they may have trouble.”

University students will have to put dreams of working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on hold until something is done about the state’s budget deficit.

David Schipper, Minnesota DNR hiring and training coordinator for the Division of Forestry, says telling students about the DNR is frustrating because the hiring freeze handcuffs a major part of his job.

“We have people retiring and we can’t refill the positions,” he said.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]