Are geoscience job prospects about to boom?

Metal thefts in the UK have increased to such an extent in 2008 that police are marking lead on church roofs with the same identification tags as televisions and DVD players. Similarly there has been an outbreak of filching heating oil and diesel from isolated farmsteads. This follows the surge in commodity prices during the first two quarters of 2008. On a more legal note, oil and mining companies have found that their assets have soared, and unsurprisingly they want more of the same, while the prices hold or rise even further. Exploration managers with increased budgets are set to thrust out to the frontiers, and consultants are rubbing their hands with glee. On the surface, these developments might seem to foretell a welcome rise in the employability of people with a geoscience degree; or so think three contributors to the 8 August 2008 issue of Science (Gramling, C. 2008. In the geosciences, business is booming. Science v. 321, p. 856-7. Laursen, L. 2008. Geoscientists in high demand in the oil industry Science v. 321, p. 857-9. Coontz, R. 2008. Hydrogeologists tap into demand for an irreplaceable resource. Science v. 321, p. 858-9).  It is claimed that geoscience jobs in the US will rise by 22% in the next decade, compared with an overall jobs forecast around 10%. Low place-value physical resources being, by definition, potentially profitable world-wide, prospects ought to be good for ‘geos’ globally.  Salaries also seem to be set to rise, along with employability for individuals with first degrees, as opposed to master’s qualifications. The ruthless downsizing, outsourcing and  lay-offs of the 80s and 90s have also placed greater value on Earth science qualifications, simply because there has been a decline in students opting for seemingly moribund career prospects; a matter of increased demand facing diminished supply, as any trader at the London metal exchange or the world’s petroleum spot markets would verify. At the same time, shifts in research funding from rock-oriented geosciences to Earth system science have created a bear market for geological academic posts. High-flying geologists in universities and surveys may well be polishing up their CVs in anticipation of a growing wage differential between the public and private sectors.

Set against such rosy prospects are the inherent economic risks that are bound up with inflation in commodity prices. Historically, there has been a tendency for boom then bust in mining and the oil industry. The contrast between the surge in petroleum and metals prices following the Yon Kippur War and the Iranian Revolution and recession in the 80s and 90s being too recent to ignore, as many ‘geos’ who found themselves ‘over the hill’ in its aftermath will admit. It would be wise to look on prospects with caution. One area that is likely to rise in prominence is ‘environmental’ geology: the likes of hydrogeology; geotechnics; coastal and flood defence. The problems that global warming may bring, an increased focus on leisure learning and heritage, and the fact that around 20% of all living people have little if any access to clean drinking water and adequate standards of public hygiene compete in many ways for young geoscientists’ aspirations. On a mercenary yet acutely practical note, growing environmental legislation and provision of development funds by non-governmental agencies that range in scale from the UN ‘family’ to small charitable bodies suggest that these fields are likely to provide satisfyingly useful employment with longer-term stability than the uncontrollable vagaries of the commodity markets, albeit at somewhat more modest salaries.

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