With the steady flow of retirements among baby boomer-aged health and safety professionals in this country, it appears more than likely that the gap will be widening between the number needed and the number available. Health and safety officials are needed in every industry to satisfy regulatory requirements, and even though some universities like the Michigan University Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering consistently graduate good students each year, it simply isn’t enough. The reason for this is that novice professionals cannot supply the knowledge about specific businesses, and on-the-job expertise earned by long-time pros over a great many years of field work.

Mushrooming demand for Health & Safety professionals According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for the three main categories of safety professionals - specialists, engineers, and technicians - is expected to grow respectively by 7%, 11% and 11% between the present time and 2022. Since the supply of entry-level candidates will not come close to satisfying that needed influx of professionals, where will they come from? The primary general industries in need of this pool of health and safety expertise will be from the manufacturing and construction companies, which industries have traditionally had the greatest need. However, that is beginning to change, as many other businesses are recognizing the need for employing professionals to prevent costly accidents to employees and equipment.

A survey conducted in 2011 by the National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded that “the national demand for safety and health services will significantly outstrip the number of men and women with the necessary training, education, and expertise to provide such services”. It also found that industry employers intended to hire approximately 25,000 new professionals within a five-year period, but that only about 12,000 graduates would be entering the market during that same period. Even worse, university enrollment in health and safety programs was projected to decline somewhat over that time.

Aging Health & Safety workforce Also referenced in the same survey was the fact that within the very next year, roughly 10% of all Health & Safety professionals would retire, and estimated that a great many more of them were aged 50 and above. This makes it likely that the number of retirements can be expected to remain steady each year for several more years, thus depleting the overall health and safety workforce even more significantly. As summarized by Carl Heinlein, a senior safety consultant at American Contractors Insurance Group, the population of professionals in the field is aging rapidly, and with so many aging and retiring, the employers seeking competent, qualified individuals are left “begging for quality safety folks”.

Why the shortage gap is becoming a canyon One of the big reasons that young people do not flock to university programs offering Health & Safety curricula is because of the overall low visibility of the profession. It is not one of the more publicized professions, and students rarely have any prior exposure to the field, as they might from a relative in the business or from media exposure. Most students never even become aware of the possibilities within the field, and are not motivated to seek them out. Then too, there is a fair amount of risk associated with jobs like these, and this risk is not limited to accidents that might befall someone for instance, in the oil and gas industry, or at a construction site. Quite often, the workplace is not in an office, but out in the field where the work is taking place, and safety measures are needed but not always observed. Injuries and even fatalities can and do occur in such settings, so the job does not afford the kind of certainty and immunity that an office cubicle might.

No short-term fix in sight Unfortunately, there is no legitimate short-term fix for this looming deficiency on the horizon. Certainly, in the coming years, professionals already in the field will gain greater competencies, and new arrivals will begin to learn the ropes, but the cumulative numbers of both categories will not make up the shortfall. So what’s the answer? Many health and safety advisors around the country are strongly recommending that the field be placed on the same status as the production line in a manufacturing facility, or any of the other core functions within an organization. Up to now, health and safety has often been considered a necessary evil, needed to pacify insurance carriers or satisfy OSHA requirements. When health and safety is put on the same footing as all other core functions of a company, it might then have the visibility in the occupational arena to attract significant numbers of qualified candidates and supply needed expertise.

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