The term environmental education covers a potentially wide range of issues and activities when applied to employees, managers and workplaces. These encompass:
- education for general awareness of environmental concerns
- education and training toward modifying work practices, processes and materials to reduce the environmental impact of industrial processes on local communities
- professional education for engineers and others seeking expertise and careers in environmental fields
- education and training of workers in the growing field of environmental abatement, including hazardous waste cleanup, emergency response to spills, releases and other accidents, and asbestos and lead paint remediation.
This article focuses on the state of worker training and education in the United States in the growing environmental remediation field. It is not an exhaustive treatment of environmental education, but rather an illustration of the link between occupational safety and health and the environment and of the changing nature of work in which technical and scientific knowledge has become increasingly important in such traditional “manual” trades as construction. “Training” refers in this context to shorter-term programmes organized and taught by both academic and non-academic institutions. “Education” refers to programmes of formal study at accredited two-year and four-year institutions. Currently a clear career path does not exist for individuals with interest in this field. The development of more defined career paths is one goal of the National Environmental Education and Training Center, Inc. (NEETC) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a wide range of education and training programmes exist at different levels, offered by a variety of academic and non-academic institutions. A survey of the institutions involved in this type of training and education formed the source material for the original report from which this article was adapted (Madelien and Paulson 1995).
A 1990 study conducted by Wayne State University (Powitz et al. 1990) identified 675 separate and distinct noncredit short courses for hazardous waste worker training at colleges and universities, offering over 2,000 courses nationwide each year. However, this study did not cover some of the primary providers of training, namely community college programmes, US Occupational Safety and Health Administration training programmes and independent firms or contractors. Thus, the Wayne State number could probably be doubled or tripled to estimate the number of noncredit, noncertification course offerings available in the United States today.
The major government-funded training programme in environmental remediation is that of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). This program, established under the Superfund legislation in 1987, provides grants to non-profit organizations with access to appropriate worker populations. Recipients include labour unions; university programmes in labour education/labour studies and public health, health sciences and engineering; community colleges; and non-profit-making safety and health coalitions, known as COSH groups (Committees on Occupational Safety and Health). Many of these organizations operate in regional consortia. The target audiences include:
- construction trades workers involved in cleanup of hazardous waste sites
- emergency response personnel working for fire and emergency services agencies and industrial plants
- transportation workers involved in transporting hazardous materials
- hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facility workers
- wastewater treatment workers.
The NIEHS program has resulted in extensive curriculum and materials development and innovation, which has been characterized by considerable sharing and synergy among grantees. The programme funds a national clearinghouse which maintains a library and curriculum centre and publishes a monthly newsletter.
Other government funded programmes offer short courses targeting hazardous waste industry professionals as opposed to front-line remedial workers. Many of these programmes are housed in university Educational Resource Centers funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The broadest change on the hazardous waste education and training landscape in the past few years is the dramatic development of community college programmes and consortia to improve vocational education at the associate’s degree level. Since the 1980s, community colleges have been doing the most organized and extensive curriculum development work in secondary education.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has funded programmes nationwide to provide for a trained workforce at sites where the need has changed from nuclear technicians to hazardous waste clean-up workers. This training is taking place most rigorously at community colleges, many of which have historically provided for personnel needs at specific DOE sites. DOE-funded programmes at community colleges have also given rise to major efforts in curriculum development and consortia for sharing information. Their goals are to establish more consistent and higher standards of training and to provide mobility for the workforce, enabling an individual trained to work at a site in one part of the country to move to another site with minimal retraining requirements.
Several consortia of community colleges are advancing curricula in this area. The Partnership for Environmental Technology Education (PETE) operates in six regions. PETE is working with the University of Northern Iowa to create a world-class network of community college environmental programmes, linked with high schools, that inform and prepare students for entry into these two-year degree programmes. The goals include the development of (1) nationally validated curriculum models, (2) comprehensive professional development programmes and (3) a national clearinghouse for environmental education.
The Hazardous Materials Training and Research Institute (HMTRI) serves the curriculum development, professional development, print and electronic communications needs of 350 colleges with two-year environmental technologies credit programmes. The Institute develops and distributes curricula and materials and implements educational programmes at its own Environmental Training Center at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, which has extensive classroom, laboratory and simulated field site facilities.
The Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD) provides national leadership in the US Department of Education’s Tech Prep/Associate Degree initiative. The Tech Prep program requires coordination between secondary and post-secondary institutions to give students a solid foundation for a career pathway and the world of work. This activity has led to the development of several contextual, experiential student texts in basic science and mathematics, which are designed for students to learn new concepts in relationship to existing knowledge and experience.
CORD has also played a significant role in the Clinton administration’s national educational initiative, “Goals 2000: Educate America”. In recognition of the need for qualified entry-level personnel, the initiative provides for the development of occupational skills standards. (“Skills standards” define the knowledge, skills, attitudes and level of ability necessary to successfully function in specific occupations.) Among the 22 skills standards development projects funded under the programme is one for hazardous materials management technology technicians.
Articulation between vocational and baccalaureate programmes
A continuing problem has been the poor linkage between two-year and four-year institutions, which hampers students who wish to enter engineering programmes after completing associate’s (two-year) degrees in hazardous/radioactive waste management. However, a number of community college consortia have begun to address this problem.
The Environmental Technology (ET) consortium is a California community college network that has completed articulation agreements with four four-year colleges. The establishment of a new job classification, “environmental technician”, by the California Environmental Protection Agency provides added incentive for graduates of the ET program to continue their education. An ET certificate represents the entry level requirement for the environmental technician position. Completion of an associate’s degree makes the employee eligible for promotion to the next job level. Further education and work experience allows the worker to progress up the career ladder.
The Waste-management Education and Research Consortium (WERC), a consortium of New Mexico schools, is perhaps the most advanced model which attempts to bridge gaps between vocational and traditional four-year education. Consortium members are the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico State University, Navajo Community College, Sandia Laboratory and Los Alamos Laboratories. The approach to curriculum transfer has been an interactive television (ITV) program in distance learning, which takes advantage of the varied strengths of the institutions.
Students enrolled in the environmental programme are required to take 6 hours of courses from the other institutions through distance learning or an offsite semester of coursework. The programme is decidedly inter-disciplinary, combining a minor in hazardous materials/waste management with a major from another department (political science, economics, pre-law, engineering or any of the sciences). The programme is “both broad and narrow” in focus, in that it recognizes a need to develop students with both a broad knowledge base in their field and some specific training in hazardous materials and hazardous waste management. This unique programme couples student participation in realistic applied research and industry-led curriculum development. The courses for the minor are very specific and take advantage of the particularized specialties at each school, but each program, including the associate degree, has a large core requirement in humanities and social sciences.
Another unique feature is the fact that the four-year schools offer two-year associate’s degrees in radioactive and hazardous materials technology. The two-year associate’s degree in environmental science offered at the Navajo Community College includes courses in Navajo history and substantial courses in communications and business, as well as technical courses. A hands-on laboratory has also been developed on the Navajo Community College campus, an unusual feature for a community college and part of the consortium’s commitment to hands-on laboratory learning and technology development/applied research. The WERC member institutions also offer a “non-degree” certificate programme in waste management studies, which seems to be above and beyond the 24-hour and 40-hour courses offered at other colleges. It is for individuals who already have a bachelor’s or graduate degree and who further wish to take advantage of seminars and specialty courses at the universities.
Several significant changes have taken place in the focus of education and training related to the hazardous waste industry in the past few years, in addition to the proliferation of short-course training programmes and traditional engineering programmes. Overall, the Department of Energy seems to have focused education at the community college level on workforce retraining, primarily through the Partnership for Environmental Technology Education (PETE), the Waste-management Education and Research Consortium (WERC) and other consortia like them.
There is a major gap between vocational training and traditional education in the environmental field. Because of this gap, there is not a clear, routine career path for hazardous waste workers, and it is difficult for these workers to advance in industry or government without classic technical degrees. Although inter-departmental options for education at a management level are being established within economics, law and medicine departments which recognize the breadth of the environmental industry, these are still academic-based professional degrees which miss a large part of the available and experienced workforce.
As the environmental clean-up industry matures, the long-term needs of the workforce for more balanced training and education and a well-developed career path become more clear. The large numbers of displaced workers from closed military sites means more people are entering the environmental workforce from other fields, making the demand on union training and placement of displaced workers (both discharged military personnel and displaced civilian personnel) even greater than before. Educational programmes are needed which meet both the needs of personnel entering the industry and of industry itself for a more balanced and better-educated workforce.
Since labour union members are one of the main groups poised to enter the hazardous waste clean-up and environmental remediation field, it would seem that labour studies and industrial relations departments might be logical entities to develop degree programmes that incorporate a hazardous waste/environmental curriculum with development of labour/management skills.