Steve McMullin, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife, 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 situation will be intensified by generational differences in the people eligible to fill those jobs.

In general, those in the post-baby boomer generations 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 job advancement. Extensive research suggests that, in addition to being very technologically literate, they are more committed to a work-life balance than previous generations and thus demand flexibility in the workplace.

“Today’s students have grown up as the Animal Planet generation,” McMullin said. “Fewer of them hunt or fish compared to previous generations. They want a Steven Irwin lifestyle working with exotic and endangered species. Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs in those fields and most are low paying.”

“The good news is that jobs will be waiting,” he continued, “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 jobs in federal and state agencies can be.”

McMullin recalls 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, allow 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.”