Science Policy & Funding News

Leave EPA Now or Wait It Out? That’s the Question Staffers Face

In interviews, some former Environmental Protection Agency workers, most of whom left the agency in 2017, discuss their careers and efforts to help colleagues find jobs and to preserve EPA’s strengths.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a major transition after President Donald Trump took office a year ago. In that time, more than 700 of EPA’s 15,000 employees left the agency, the New York Times reported last month. The departures include more than 200 scientists. The administration says it wants to cut thousands more positions to reduce the staff overall by 3,200, or roughly 20%.

Some EPA observers hope that many remaining on staff will tough it out through the administration’s tenure to limit the agency’s brain drain, whereas others say now is the time to leave if you’ve got good skills and some financial cushion. Eos spoke with a few former EPA staff members about what prompted their departures, where they’ve landed, and their advice for former coworkers still at the agency.

Undermining the Work Force

Jesse McGrath, an environmental scientist involved with monitoring air quality compliance, worked at EPA from 2009 until last June. He said he felt that working there was a natural fit for him and that EPA’s efforts had national and even worldwide impacts. Trump’s election as president, however, was “a shock,” said McGrath, who also had served as an EPA union steward.

The public “is seeing direct attacks on the environment,” but those actions alone aren’t necessarily the worst damage, he told Eos. “The real secret to undoing any agency’s actions is to undermine the work force so much that people don’t want to be there,” he said. “That was one of the things that urged me to leave.”

McGrath acknowledged that some cuts to agency resources took place during the Obama administration, but he characterized the attitude of the current administration as “despising EPA’s long-term goals.”

Despite a sense among some remaining agency staff and others that EPA workers should stay put “so people who are there for the wrong reasons don’t take over the place,” as he put it, McGrath thought it was best to leave.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea to try to ride out the administration. If you really want to have a strong environmental impact, you’re more likely to do it outside of the agency for the next several years until [the agency] can refocus.”

When he decided to leave EPA, he had an easy landing. Prior to working at EPA, he had been a technician with a research facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that focuses on the impacts of environmental changes on crops, including soybeans, corn, and cassava. As he was looking for what to do next, a position opened up there, and McGrath currently is a research coordinator at the facility.

His advice to others at EPA, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, is to “make sure you have something else in place because you’re not likely to get to keep this [job],” he said. For those already thinking about leaving EPA, he said they should start looking for job openings and talking to people about other opportunities.

An EPA Alumni Job Center

The EPA Alumni Association’s job center is a place where current and former EPA staffers can look for work.

The job center, begun last year, isn’t an initiative the group would have thought about starting up in previous administrations “because we didn’t think there would be that much of a need for it,” Chuck Elkins, executive director of the association, told Eos.

“We got concerned about the fact that this administration might be shoving a lot of people out the door,” explained Elkins, a lawyer who retired from EPA after 25 years, ultimately as associate general counsel from 1991 to 1995. “We were afraid that they would not stay in the environmental field. That would be a great loss to society and also bad for them” unless they found a good new position.

Elkins said that although it’s not necessarily easy to get another job, many organizations need environmental expertise. In addition, he said, somebody who has worked at EPA may have skills that are directly transferable to other jobs in government, the private sector, or nonprofits.

“But when it comes to scientific skills, you can often match up those skills into other jobs.” He said that writing regulations also involves transferable skills, including analysis, scientific expertise, the ability to understand legal issues, writing, and relating to the public.

However, Elkins said that an applicant’s toughest challenge may be to convince a nongovernment employer, who may not have a good understanding about government jobs, that EPA employees have many skills and qualifications. For instance, he said that some industries don’t give much credence to the management skills of people coming out of government agencies, despite the EPA managers handling tough jobs with small budgets.

New Administration Not a Factor in His Leaving

Before retiring from EPA this past August through an agency buyout, Tom Ripp worked for EPA for 27 years. Ripp, who has expertise in chemical engineering, finance, and management science, worked in the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and other EPA offices.

Ripp said the new administration didn’t factor into his decision to leave the agency and that he wasn’t able to take advantage of earlier buyout opportunities. He views Trump as “certainly rough all over, not just on the edges, but some of [his] ideas, if properly implemented, could actually have been good”—tax reform among them. However, he regards Trump-appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as “trying to dismantle” the agency. In retirement, Ripp has continued to be concerned about the agency and, for instance, has commented on EPA’s draft strategic plan.

He said that his advice for people considering leaving EPA depends on someone’s level of tolerance for the bureaucracy. “If you tolerate the bureaucracy, stick with it because the agency is doing good for the public and for the environment,” he said. “I don’t know if Trump is going to be around for a second term.”

He added that for those who decide to leave EPA, their choices may include working for another agency within the federal government, or they may want to look into opportunities to apply their skills in the private sector.

Concern About the Loss of Human Capital

George Wyeth, a lawyer who worked for EPA from 1989 until he retired last January, is also still using his skills to help the agency in various ways. Wyeth, who worked in the office of the general counsel as well as in the policy innovation office and elsewhere in the agency, said that when he started working at EPA, he thought he would develop some specialized expertise and move on. “It started off as career development, but once I got to EPA, I enjoyed the nature of the work better than private practice,” he said.

After several decades, however, he decided prior to the election to leave. “I’d been working in a big bureaucracy for a long time. I was looking for a change of scenery. It felt like that point where things were likely to go into a kind of hiatus anyway [with a change in administration] would be a good time to leave,” Wyeth told Eos. “I don’t think I would have changed my mind if the election had gone the other way.”

At the time he left the agency, Wyeth had, and still maintains, an appointment as a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s law school in Washington, D. C. He thought that would become his primary focus while he also looked for other opportunities such as consulting or part-time projects.

However, Wyeth has spent about half of his work time since retiring helping to establish the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) with some other former EPA staff members. EPN is an organization that addresses threats, including budget cuts and regulatory rollbacks, to the structure and operation of EPA environmental programs. Wyeth, an EPN codirector and board member, said he remains interested in research and innovation in government and considers our government’s efforts in those areas important to support.

“But with the election and a much more fundamental attack on any kind of government action—what they call deconstructing the administrative state—thinking about innovation in government seemed a little secondary,” he said. “Because of that, I ended up focusing much more on dealing with the immediate threats to EPA.”

For people at the stage of being ready to retire, “I wouldn’t try to discourage them,” said Wyeth. However, he said there is a concern about loss of human capital. “To the extent that people wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about retiring and don’t have other personal reasons that they would want to do something else, my hope would be that they would stick it out because in some ways the biggest damage that can be done to the agency would be if they could get a lot of people to leave and the agency loses a lot of collective expertise.”

“You want those people there. I would ask them to stay and bear with it. It can only help to have the people with the expertise there. If you try and they don’t listen to you, at least you had the chance to try.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Leave EPA now or wait it out? That’s the question staffers face, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO090613. Published on 11 January 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0