The Riches Are in the Niches

evanoff Stephen Evanoff

Several years ago, a crusty, veteran, environmental consulting executive said to me, with a sparkle in his eye, “da riches is in da niches.” At the time, I dismissed the comment as not being applicable to an inside guy like me (i.e, EHS manager in a large corporation) and only relevant to the true-blue, hardy consultants out there, in particular an entrepreneurial executive who was eyeing another acquisition of a specialty firm. Now, I am not so sure.

The traditional model for EHS career progression was to develop a technical expertise to establish your credentials and, over time, acquire a broad, basic knowledge of EHS subject matter while simultaneously learning about business management. Thus, one would become a good generalist capable of moving up the management chain. But today, with the number of EHS management positions shrinking (due, I think, to our success establishing EHS management systems, integrating EHS into operations and deploying pollution prevention practices) and a plentiful supply of well-qualified generalists, this model may be going the way of the main frame computer.

I know several people who are so expert in their niche’ that they command $350/hour rates serving as expert witnesses in trials related to lead poisoning and asbestos. I know others who make a good living consulting and training people in very specific, narrow subject areas, such as TSCA compliance. I’ve worked with plant-level air emissions experts and corporate-level ergonomists who made a darn good living.

What’s been your experience? Are generalists going the way of the pterodactyl? Are the riches in the niches?


About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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  1. Bruce Klafter

    March 30, 2009

    I have always counseled my team that their effectiveness depends upon not only expertise but upon customer service and communication. We are living in a world where most people expect an immediate answer; that is certainly the case when you are paying a high price consultant or dealing with your in-house “expert”. However, what really separates the “average” expert from the superior ones is that person’s ability to see the big picture, to spot related issues and to communicate it all effectively (i.e. clearly, concisely, accurately). So, there is always going to be a need for EHS professionals to develop their “soft” skills and to become somewhat more well rounded.

  2. Ben

    March 30, 2009

    Stephen, I don’t disagree with your take on generalists. Wonder if that’s true in other fields-ex: has the success of financial systems/software result in fewer positions ?

  3. George Crosby

    March 30, 2009

    I have been all over the place as far as experience from shift supervisor to superintendant to manger and everywhere I went I took EH&S with me. My latest is LEAN Champion and facilities work along wwith security and janitorial services So I had an IH tell me many years ago all of this is valuable and it is valuable to you somewhere someday down the road.

    I guess it worked I bring alot of knowlege

  4. David Williams

    March 30, 2009

    This blog is a great place to have good virtual discussions and tie things together.

    Bruce points out that “We are living in a world where most people expect an immediate answer” – I agree that is a general expectation; however, in the same line of thinking as the “fake work” discussion, I think there is a lot of “fake urgency” out there as well. I see a lot of that – business problems that have existed for years suddenly have to be fixed with a “slam it in and move on” solution that may or may not actually make things better.

    David Maister in his book “True Professionalism” lays out 4 types of consulting firms using a healthcare metaphor. This analogy can also be applied to individuals and their careers. The “Pharmacist” is someone who will is well-trained and highly qualified but is typically not interacting heavily with clients and is cranking out a living by producing standard work over and over again. The “Nurse” is qualified and while cranking out standard work over and over must provide a high degree of “touch time” and have very good skills to walk the client through the process. The “Brain Surgeon” is very specialized, has a narrow focus and typically is delivering on very technical assignments that don’t require a lot of client touch time – basically come in, solve a tough problem and move on. The “Pychotherapist” works on the issues of corporate politics, governance and broken organizations. His book has a very good treatment on this subject.

    Bottom line is that there is a place for all 4 types (spans from generalist in Pharmacists and Nurses to specialist in Brain Surgeons and Psychotherapists), but you have to decide what you want to be and put yourself in a position to deliver value in that role.

  5. Arlene Davidson

    March 30, 2009

    Working with Fortune 500 customers during my 19 years at Dakota Software Corporation, I have found that the “technical specialist” still rules. What has changed is the broadening of the EHS specialist’s knowledge base and responsibilities to include comprehensive regulatory awareness and development of a link to C-level executives for consulting on sustainability of all facets of the operation. And with that link, the EHS technical specialist’s role has gained credibility.

  6. Dean M. Calhoun, CIH

    March 30, 2009

    It’s been my experience that you really need to be a generalist. With shrinking budgets and smaller staff you will need to learn how to handle a broad range of issues, but not necessarily be an “expert” in anyone of them. Special technical expertise can be outsourced on a “as-needed” basis. As always, solid management, business, and communication skills are valued the most.

    Dean M. Calhoun, CIH
    Affygility Solutions, LLC

  7. John Paul

    March 30, 2009

    I have general experience dealing with air, hazardous waste, wastewater, remediation, and indurial hygiene issues for both the company and our customers. I am the Environmental/Regulatory Affairs Manager and work with US EPA, state DEP’s, DEA, FDA, ATF, DHS,RoHS and REACH. I am the Director of online and onground training for our employees, customers and any companies or persons who request training. I am also an adjunct professor.
    General experience is rewarding as a career, however it lacks the monetary rewards of a specialist.

  8. Mark Calmes

    March 30, 2009

    An old, wise oracle once said a generalist is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Sage advice then and now.

  9. Charles Kutterer

    March 30, 2009

    I have found that more and more plant sites are doing more with less. Who hasn’t heard that line before? And ESH isn’t immune to that either.

    It seems sites want a safety, health, environmental, security and sometimes facilities person all wrapped up in one. How can one possibly be an expert in anything if they have so many hats to wear?

    I have seen more sites going to the one person show model also. Is this a Midwest phenomenon? Or is it happening everywhere?

    That is why I try to keep my network plugged in and functioning well so I have resources to go to when I do need that expert question dealt with. Associations also help to keep that network alive.

    Maybe in consulting the expert continues to do well but in manufacturing it is a rare bird, at least in the St Louis region.


  10. Fred Rubel

    March 31, 2009

    A few individuals are extreemly bright and specialized, with outstanding capabilities in specialized areas. As long as that specialty is needed, they are “good to go.” The rest of us (no offense intended), however, must rely on broader capabilities that will sustain us in the business world. There is a fine line that we need to be aware of. Perhaps the following expression has merit: “An expert in all areas is an expert in none.” There is just too much information out there. We need to be carful about we are not “expert” in. Most of us must develop and maintiain core professional capabilities and knowledge, and then be able to reach beyond that. Today, the successful individual must constantly refine their skills and acquire and act on new knowledge rapidly.

  11. mel Oleson

    March 31, 2009

    The EHS field is becoming more political each year. Found that becoming a specialist in working legislation and regulatory interfaces has been very rewarding. Not only is the work challenging; but, can actually do good for both the business community and environment by guiding regulatory development toward economically and political sustainable goals. Background skills to do this has been technical (Scientist) yet, the real skill is ability to communicate complex concepts and messages in terms that law makers and regulatory executives can grasp and act on. It also helps to have a lot of patience as can take years to get some changes made.

  12. Diana Kroner, CHMM

    June 18, 2009

    In the corporate EHS world, I agree that companies are downsizing and it is important to be a generalist. This is the job that I currently have. Unfortunately, the number of these jobs appear to be shrinking. I have applied to consulting firms and found that they value depth of experience more than breadth of experience. So, where does that leave those of us with corporate EHS career paths? Should we be developing specialties? Changing fields entirely?

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