Wanted: Environmental Health Specialists to Keep Our Air, Water and Food Safe

The College of Public Health helps to create career-ready graduates for this in-demand field

As a 2017 graduate of Kent State University’s College of Public Health, Emily Speck puts her education and skills to work as a registered environmental health specialist in Portage County, testing stormwater and making sure private water systems are safe. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic Speck, who works for the Portage County Combined General Health District, and many others in her field throughout the state and across the country, took on added duties related to the crisis.  

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The shortage of environmental health specialists accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic but had begun well before that, according to Matthew Stefanak, a semi-retired faculty member and a public health ambassador with the College of Public Health, who works to foster deep partnerships within the industry that are beneficial to the students and organizations. 

Environmental Health Specialists are responsible for keeping our air, water and food safe.

“I work extensively with health departments and other organizations on projects of importance to them and that creates opportunities for our graduate students to get some practical experience working with me,” he said.  

The College of Public Health is offering support to students who are interested in the field through the new Giving Tuesday CPH

Environmental Health Pathways Fund.

The fund, which raised $10,349 was established to help students realize their goals to become environmental health specialists. 

What Do Environmental Health Specialists Do? 

Public health professionals are responsible for improving the health and well-being of communities and individuals. Environmental health specialists do this through their dedication to keeping our environment as clean and healthy as possible. 

“They are the backbone of the public health workforce,” Stefanak said. “They and public health nurses constitute more than half of the workforce of our state and local health departments.”  

Speck told Kent State Today that the job is exciting and no two days are alike.

Environmental Health Specialists Did Double Duty 

During the pandemic, environmental health specialists picked up various pandemic-related duties, including scheduling vaccinations and responding to COVID-19 complaints concerning businesses during the day, on weekends and at night in addition to their regular duties. 

Speck and her colleagues witnessed firsthand the effect that the pandemic had on the ranks of environmental health specialists due to early retirements and fatigue. 

“Once COVID occurred a lot of people who could retire or were about to retire, did retire,” said Speck, who also is a member of the Ohio Environmental Health Associations Northeast Planning Committee. “If they stayed through COVID, they retired right after the COVID pandemic.” 

Kent State alumna Dana Fischio, a registered environmental health specialist, workforce development coordinator and accreditation coordinator at the city of New Philadelphia Health Department, said health departments across the state of Ohio are poaching environmental health specialists from one another. 

“It's almost as if health departments across the state of Ohio are, for lack of a better word, cannibalizing one another because there's no incoming workforce or a very small amount of incoming workforce,” Fischio said. “We're stealing environmental health specialists from one another, and it comes down to who can pay better or who can offer better incentives.” 

Fischio said for smaller jurisdictions the playing field is not level because the smaller pay scales don't compare to those at the Ohio Department of Health or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

“So they're stealing from local agencies because the training has already been done, the licensure has already been done. You go from local, city or county benefits to state benefits and who wouldn't want those?” 

Recruiting Environmental Health Specialists 

As the ranks of environmental health specialists thin, recruiters are confronted with several challenges in bringing on new professionals to a field that is expected to grow by six percent between 2022 and 2032 due to the 6,900 workers each year exiting the labor market or going to other jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“There are rigorous academic and practical licensing requirements for residential environmental health specialists in Ohio and about 20 other states that require licensure,” Stefanak said. “Students must have a solid background in the natural sciences and mathematics. And once they are recruited into a traineeship, they must spend up to two years as a trainee and then sit for a national exam.” 

Kent State graduate Emily Speck works as an environmental health specialist at the Portage County Combined General Health District

Many students become interested in environmental health further along in their degree program making it difficult for them to take enough science and math courses to qualify.  

Fischio encourages students who are interested in environmental health to reach out to professionals early. 

“Don't be afraid to reach out to a local health district,” Fischio said. “We're always excited at the prospect of new employees or potential new employees. And if you're interested, don't be afraid to ask for a job shadowing opportunity or a day in the life of an environmental health specialist and really get a feel for how unique and exciting a day's work is.”  

Students interested in becoming environmental health specialists can pursue a public health minor depending on their major. Click here for more information: College of Public Health Minors.

To learn more about the College of Public Health environmental health minors and to seek career advice and opportunities, please visit the CPH Ambassadors webpage and schedule an appointment with one of CPH Ambassadors.

Learn more about the CPH Environmental Health Pathways Fund.


POSTED: Thursday, February 15, 2024 11:46 AM
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2024 11:47 AM
April McClellan-Copeland