The slow, steady march toward a potentially much-reduced professional work force in the geosciences is a situation receiving considerable attention these days.
The most senior geoscientists are beginning to retire, yet there is no substantial influx of recent graduates – and not many folks occupy the so-called middle level of the work force.
“Geoscientists are needed to address societal needs more than ever, in the areas of energy, water, natural hazards, natural resources, climate, the environment, geological engineering and public policy,” said AAPG member Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences and Farish chair and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The pipeline is not prepared to meet the predicted future demand for a robust geoscience work force, so a multi-dimensional, sustained effort to increase the number of students embarking on a geoscience career is critical,” Mosher emphasized.
The American Geological Institute has published a series of work force reports for the United States highlighting the problems.
It’s not an encouraging scenario.
For example, the AGI concluded:
- The number of geoscience degrees granted has stayed relatively flat for the last decade.
- The percentage of students taking earth science classes in middle school has dropped since the 1990s (always less than 15 percent), while remaining relatively flat at less than 20 percent in high school.
On the other side of the equation, the number of geoscience-related jobs has increased by almost 30 percent during the last decade.
So the need for geoscientists continues to rise, while a large demographic is preparing to walk out the door.
Re-Defining the Situation
Mosher has spent much of her career addressing the myriad issues entailed in building a diverse and sustainable geoscience work force. She emphasized that such an effort requires a multi-faceted approach and that, collectively, individual efforts make the most impact.
“One of the hardest things (to overcome) is the perception that people have of the earth sciences,” she said. “With kids in classes, it’s the old ‘rocks for jocks syndrome,’ that it’s not a ‘real’ science.
“A lot of times in middle and high schools, it’s relegated to being something that kids include in their curriculum because they’re not very good at science,” Mosher noted. “Yet geoscience requires you to really understand chemistry, physics, biology, computer science and math.
“It integrates those different fields, so you have to be good in those to be successful,” she added.
She cautions that what once attracted so many professionals to the profession is no longer relevant.
“There’s still a tendency to emphasize field work and travel, but many students now don’t find this attractive,” Mosher noted. “They want families and a stable home life and don’t want to travel.
“Additionally, most first generation college students equate field work to manual labor and aren’t interested,” she noted, “plus they may be reluctant to leave their community.”
The folly of using field work as a lure for students today becomes even more apparent when considering the bulk of the professional jobs they ultimately will take on, for the most part, require staying indoors in front of a computer.
“We need to encourage the students who are good in math and other core sciences by showing them the technical aspect of our field,” she said, “and how these subjects are used to solve real world problems.”
Effective marketing is essential to expose more potential students to the upside of the geosciences.
“In many cases, this requires changing the negative perception of our science and career and salary opportunities,” she said, “as well as changing our perception of what is appealing as a career or what interests and skills match most geoscience careers.”
Where Are the Teachers?
While there’s hand-wringing aplenty about the low number of students available to eventually fill professional positions, there’s a problem here that’s not often highlighted.
To have students, you must have teachers.
Mosher commented there are very few geoscience teachers because of the many industry career opportunities in the geosciences and the relatively few high school geoscience-teaching jobs.
Few states require or even teach geosciences courses at the high school level.
“We need to help train teachers in the other sciences to teach geosciences,” Mosher said. “Experience shows that for professional development programs to be successful, teachers need repetition, so follow-up refresher workshops/programs must be a part of this effort.”
The Jackson School of Geosciences is actively working to resolve some of the future work force issues via specific programs it has in place.
One of these is the successful GeoFORCE program for under-represented students in inner-city Houston and southwest Texas.
GeoFORCE is a four-year summer program that takes the students on geology field trips to various parts of the United States. These include trips to the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helens and certain Texas locales, among others.
Students must perform well during the regular school year, as well as pass a test each summer focused on what they learned.
The program is supported in part by the AAPG Foundation (see November 2010 EXPLORER).
“The success rate in terms of these kids graduating high school as well as going into college has been amazing,” Mosher said. “The number going into science, technology and math is amazing as well.”