Who Can Work for Free? How Higher Pay Will Make the Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences More Inclusive

Dec 16, 2020 · 6 min read

By Alex Jensen

The author Alex (left) and Sofia Carrillo (right) setting up a wildlife camera on the Central Coast of California. Sofia was part of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program wherein students at community colleges are paired with researchers at four-year institutions for the summer (and paid!).

The calling to join the field of environmental science and natural resources (ENR) started early for me; I grew up on a ranch on the Central Coast of California where wild things were part of life. There were close encounters with rattlesnakes as thick as my calf, and feral pigs in our front yard. One time, I remember hearing a puma scream from the shrub-choked gulley just below our house — I was shook, but it also made me curious. What was it doing? Where does it move?

It was this experience and countless others that made me want to devote my working hours to understanding and conserving the outdoors.

I knew this wouldn’t be glamorous work, and no one goes into it for the money, but as I continued my studies, I realized that my field had accessibility issues. There are various barriers to professional development, but the key question becomes, “who can work for free?”

In order to qualify for many permanent positions (or even graduate school), students need to have some professional field experience. I think of these “field experiences” as temporary full-time work experiences for students or recent graduates. They can get some hands-on experience in classes, but that’s not enough; field experiences are critical for professional advancement. Aside from providing hands-on skill development, field experiences help students build their networks, increase retention, improve GPA scores, improve self-efficacy, and help clarify career intentions.

Unfortunately, pay for field experiences is often low, even for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. Everybody needs the experience, but only some can afford it.

Admittedly, I have faced few barriers to my professional development. During college, I was able to spend my summers engaged in field experiences for very little pay because my parents gave me money every month. I recognize that many students don’t have that luxury, and I think ENR would be better off if we made it more equitable. For instance, Aurora, a SACNISTA (and recent graduate), talks about how low pay limited the opportunities available to her: “For me, looking and applying for opportunities was difficult because many positions didn’t provide enough compensation and they depended on me to supplement my income on my own instead of relying on the position to support myself. Some positions are even volunteer based or don’t provide housing, [which] implies you need to already be financially well-off, despite being a young adult just starting your career.

It made me realize how difficult it could be to further my career and that I would need to let go of applying to certain opportunities. I felt forced to take positions that were from home or didn’t involve a lot of moving and were paid, and most of these I found were outside of the field.”

It’s well known that we should be getting paid more for the work we do, but how much more? And how does that vary by demographic group? How do pay needs compare to how much jobs pay? More generally, what other barriers exist to field experiences? These are the questions my lab group and I wanted to know the answer to.

We sent a survey to ENR majors nationwide asking them how much they needed to be paid for a full-time three-month field experience. We also asked them about barriers they’ve experienced, as well as standard demographic questions. In order to compare their answers to the landscape of pay, we looked at job boards and quantified the amount jobs were paying during the spring (which is when most summer field jobs are posted).

We found that, on average, students needed $8.65/hour to accept a field experience. Interestingly, racial/ethnic minority students needed more ($10.80/hour), while cisgender female/non-cisgender respondents said they needed less ($7.37/hour).

These outcomes weren’t surprising — racial wealth gaps exist, and women often undervalue themselves in this context. The only other demographic variable that was important in our analysis was income — students who generated more of their own income (i.e. received less financial support from their family) also needed higher pay.

Non-white students needed higher pay than white students, while cisgender female/non-cisgender students needed lower pay than cisgender male students.

So how does that compare to the job boards? Only 65% of ENR jobs paid at least the average needed wage ($8.65), while 73% paid at least federal minimum wage ($7.25). Not surprisingly, few students of any demographic group could afford to work for below minimum wage, but critically, even at higher wages, a lower proportion of racial/ethnic minority students could afford to work for a given wage. It wasn’t until pay was $20/hour that 90% of racial/ethnic minority students were retained, and only 3% of jobs paid that amount!

Higher pay = a more diverse applicant pool.

Not surprisingly, pay was the biggest barrier for students — 42% of respondents said that their level of income was a barrier to their academic career. Other common barriers for students were season or timing, work or school responsibilities, lack of transportation, family/care commitments, and mental/physical health.

So where do we go from here? Clearly, ENR professionals need to be paying students and recent graduates more. This means incorporating adequate salaries into grants and a refusal to underpay employees. However, inclusion is important beyond pay.

Hiring a diverse workforce means being intentional about providing support and mentorship for students, particularly for those from historically underrepresented groups. It also means being flexible to student needs.

Our survey revealed that students highly valued skills training, and typically desired to work near school or family. If you make hiring decisions, think about your hiring practice in the context of inclusion. Where do you advertise? Is it clear that your organization values underrepresented people? Are you offering a pay scale that matches those values?

One of the reasons ENR isn’t very diverse to begin with is its perception as an inferior vehicle to upward social mobility. Many low-income young adults aspire for high-paying jobs, and often ENR careers are not on their radar, even if they have an interest in nature.

Paying students and young professionals more should have reverberating effects on the rest of the ENR economy, eventually bumping up pay at higher ranks. I see a future where pay is not a barrier to individuals pursuing their passion for the outdoors.

Note: This article is centered around research conducted by graduate students and faculty at Clemson University and Colorado State University. This research project would not have been possible without a large dedicated team: Dr. Sara Bombaci, Dr. David Jachowski, Dr. Laura Gigliotti, Dr. Courtney Marneweck, Dr. Shari Rodriguez, Stephen Harris, Mike Muthersbaugh, Blaise Newman, Elizabeth Saldo, Kyle Shute, Keifer Titus, Amanda Williams, and Sze Wing Yu. Further, we would like to thank The Wildlife Society Inclusion, Diversity, Equity Awareness Working Group and Clemson University Inclusion and Equity for funding this research. The research article is forthcoming, but for now, a 10 minute summary video (the same presentation given at 2020 SACNAS — The National Diversity in STEM Virtual Conference) is available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OHRwjxPTiU

About the Author

Alex in the field wearing a GPS-tracking collar experiencing what life is like for his study animals (coyotes).

Alex Jensen is a PhD Candidate at Clemson University in South Carolina where he studies coyote movement and predator-prey ecology. He can be reached through email at alexjojensen@gmail.com. Check out his website at http://alexjojensen.com/.

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