A “perfect storm” describes a rare combination of circumstances coming together to aggravate a situation drastically. Steve McMullin, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, predicts a perfect storm ahead for natural resource agencies, which will lose over 40 percent of their personnel in the next decade as baby boomers retire.

The storm, McMullin says, will be intensified by generational differences in the people eligible to fill those jobs. In general, potential applicants tend to be less interested in agency jobs, less inclined to relocate for promotions, more likely to demand flexible work situations, and unrealistically confident of rapid advancement.

“A third of students in an introductory fisheries and wildlife class here wanted to go into animal rehabilitation and zoo work — a higher percentage than those seeking work in federal and state agencies,” said McMullin, who teaches in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs in those fields and most are low paying.”

“Today’s students have grown up as the Animal Planet generation,” he continued. “Fewer of them hunt or fish compared to previous generations. They want a Steven Irwin lifestyle working with exotic and endangered species.”

The post-baby-boom generation, those born between 1965 and 1980, is known as Generation X. Extensive research suggests this is an independent, fast-paced group that is more committed to a work-life balance than previous generations and demands flexibility in the workplace.

Generation Y (those born between 1981 and 1995), also called the Millennials, is characterized as somewhat protected and expects frequent positive feedback. Extremely technologically literate, they, too, prefer flexible and even virtual work environments.

Members of Generation Z (those born since 1995), who will soon enter the workforce, love being constantly connected but are more likely to have nature-deficit disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv to explain the disconnect between kids and the natural world.

The face-to-face and written communication skills of Generation Z may also seem deficient. Research shows they average more than 3,000 text messages and fewer than 200 phone calls a month.

“Jobs will be waiting — that’s the good news,” McMullin said. “But they may not be the ones students wanted going into natural resource programs. As part of their education, we need to increase students’ awareness of where the real job opportunities are and show them just how cool those jobs in federal and state agencies can be.”

To illustrate, McMullin gives firsthand testimony of working for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks early in his career — canoeing a remote river to do a census of red kokanee salmon, snorkeling among thousands of the red fish, and watching dozens of bald eagles circling overhead.

“I often found myself saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this,’” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities like this in the U.S.”

Concern about filling baby boomer vacancies prompted the Coalition of Natural Resource Societies to host a national conference to determine what can be done to prepare the next generation of natural resource professionals.

McMullin, one of the 35 invited participants, says agencies may have to revise some of their rules, allowing creative options such as flex time and virtual meetings, and implement active mentoring and leadership development programs geared to help younger generations earn their way into leadership positions. Jobs may be revamped to make use of the new employees’ technical skills.

“We’ll need to convince employers to support continuing education on the job,” McMullin said. “Colleges and universities can’t do it all.”

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