UCAR > Communications > Quarterly > Fall 1996 Search

Will for-profit meteorology take up the federal hiring slack?

by Robert Henson
UCAR Communications

Dean Jones, manager of Storm Warnings and Utilities at WeatherData Incorporated, at work in the operations department.

The crunch is on for freshly minted meteorologists seeking jobs. Hiring by the National Weather Service (NWS) is at a virtual standstill and expected to remain so for the next few years. Other federal opportunities are dwindling as the government's battle against the deficit continues. Meanwhile, university programs in atmospheric and related science continue to churn out hundreds of new graduates each year. How will the field keep from being flooded?

Heads and chairs of academic programs from around the country addressed that question in Boulder on 10-11 October at their tenth biennial meeting, sponsored jointly by the American Meteorological Society and UCAR. The meeting included updates on hiring in various quarters and a panel discussion on how private-sector firms might provide a glimmer of hope in hiring--if universities can provide the kind of graduates that industry needs.

Preceding the panel, a set of reports by funding agencies confirmed the bleak outlook for new graduates. Susan Zevin, deputy head of the NWS, noted the overriding political mandate to reduce government budgets and full-time equivalent positions: "We expect that new hiring opportunities within NOAA will be severely limited." NWS hiring peaked at over 250 in 1993, at the height of modernization. However, said Zevin, fewer than 25 new staff came on board in fiscal 1996. NWS projects no new hiring at all for 1997 through 1999, with only modest growth thereafter (25 to 50 per year). Zevin noted that many other federal agencies, from the FAA to the EPA, also are projecting minimal hiring of meteorologists through 2000.

Some opportunities remain in the military. James Kroll (U.S. Air Force) outlined the requirements for officers and civilian meteorologists. Around 100 slots are filled each year in the Navy and Air Force combined, including both officers and civilians, with some of these slots filled through Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) candidates. Kroll said that the Air Force projects a shortfall of meteorologists in the coming year, primarily due to insufficient numbers of officer candidates from the ROTC and Air Force Academy meteorological pipelines.

This glimmer of hope pales against statistics presented from the 1996 Curricula in the Atmospheric, Oceanic, Hydrologic and Related Sciences (available from the AMS). For the two academic years 1993-95, a yearly average of around 900 bachelor's degrees, 600 master's degrees, and 300 doctorates were presented at 101 institutions in the fields covered by the curricula. In a subset of half of these schools, the number of bachelor's degrees is expected to rise to around 550 in 1996-97 and 600 in 1999-2000.

It was against this backdrop that David Houghton (University of Wisconsin) convened a panel of four prominent private-sector meteorologists on the afternoon of the 10th. Houghton led off by noting the wide range of private-sector endeavors--utilities, aviation, radio/television, and other forecast and consulting--that employ roughly 30% of all meteorologists, according to a 1992 survey published in the Bulletin of the AMS. Are the universities preparing their students for successful careers in these fields? Not really, said the four panelists. They maintained that today's entry-level meteorologists often fall short on basic analysis, forecasting, or communications skills, even though they may have graduated from synoptically oriented programs.

"You should flunk synoptic lab if you're a terrible forecaster," said Mike Smith, an AMS-certified consulting meteorologist (CCM) and president of Wichita's WeatherData, Inc., which prepares forecasts for utilities, transportation, and newspapers. Smith said that many applicants have trouble plotting and analyzing a surface weather map or adjusting forecast guidance from computer models. He called for universities to give their students more experience in actual forecasting and verification--independent of computer models at first--and more extensive training on such forecast-relevant topics as teleconnections, synoptic climatology, satellite/radar interpretation, and pattern recognition. To make room for these additions, Smith said, higher-level math and science courses could be deemphasized for students on a bachelor's-degree track. Exposure to career options is also a necessity, he said: "Many applicants have never set foot in an NWS or commercial meteorology office and have no idea what to expect after they graduate."

(U.S. Navy photo/Jeffrey Loshaw.)

For other companies, chemistry is the missing ingredient. Trinity Consultants, Inc., in Dallas, employs 20 meteorologists, most trained at the master's level. They perform dispersion modeling, visibility studies, impact assessments, and other work tied to industry compliance with the Clean Air Act. Trinity's vice president of consulting operations, Jay Hofmann, gave the universities good marks for training their graduates in computer skills and modeling. However, he'd like to see applicants with stronger backgrounds in atmospheric and general chemistry and in basic industrial design and engineering.

Pete Giddings (a CCM and a weathercaster at KGO-TV, San Francisco) was on hand to represent broadcasting. Radio and television employ about 8.1% of all meteorologists, or more than 500, according to the 1992 AMS survey. Yet Giddings pointed out that hundreds of other radio and TV weathercasting slots are filled by nonmeteorologists who have an edge in communication skill and experience. Giddings criticized the lack of analytical and presentational savvy in the students who come to him for internships: "Very few of them could explain the current or future weather to anyone." He noted that his military service, which involved delivering regular weather briefings to superiors, helped him learn to describe weather situations concisely and defend forecasts on his feet.

The commercial aviation picture was presented by Warren Qualley, head of the Fort Worth-based American Airlines Weather Services. American is one of only four U.S. passenger airlines that maintain in-house meteorological services, said Qualley (the others are United, Delta, and Northwest, he noted). Several airlines dropped their forecast branches in favor of contractors during the post-deregulation period in the early 1980s, according to Qualley. "Every time a budget cycle comes around, we have to justify our existence." His office does so with verification studies that give them a slight edge over official NWS forecasts at major airport hubs. Nevertheless, said Qualley, the job outlook for meteorologists at American is "somewhat bleak," since the 19-forecaster staff experiences very low turnover. Qualley's concerns about today's graduates center on weak communications skills and an overreliance on computer-model guidance: "They've got to learn how to use the models and actually forecast."

In the Q-&-A that followed the panel, department heads acknowledged the panel's concerns while noting the perennial constraints they themselves face: tight academic budgets, limited course offerings, and only so much room in a four-year program. John Snow (University of Oklahoma), AMS commissioner for education and human resources, concluded the session by posing the challenging question, "What would be the impact if all these professors went and told their students that job opportunities at the National Weather Service are effectively zero for the near future?"

Broadcasting employs 8.1% of meteorologists. (Michael Seidel, Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist; photo courtesy of Bob Henson.)

Some alternatives for both graduates and departments were outlined the next morning. Roland Stull (University of British Columbia) speculated on the transition in jobs from routine forecasting and observation--which are becoming increasing automated--in favor of growing disciplines such as air quality monitoring, forensic meteorology, and others, many in the private sector. Stull suggested that some students might want to hedge their occupational bets by majoring in computer science or electronics with meteorology as a minor.

How to prepare students for these new paths? Five potential new variations in meteorology degree programs were presented by Greg Forbes (Pennsylvania State University). They included

At the University of Oklahoma, Jeff Kimpel and colleagues are working on a proposal in line with Forbes's fourth option: a professional master's degree. "Meteorology is both a science and a profession," Kimpel said, noting the plan's similarities to other five-year professional degrees. Applicants for the 1.5- to 2-year master's must have a bachelor's in atmospheric science. Requirements would include two semesters of daily map discussion, a year of teaching assistantships, and a written project report that passes muster on both scientific and communications proficiency.

"I think that the professional five-year master's is an option," said Phil Smith (Purdue University), program chair of the meeting and head of the 1996 AMS Board on Meteorological and Oceanographic Education in Universities. "It's an interesting approach, and it might be the way to go." He agreed with Forbes that a bachelor's program elongated to five years would be unlikely to appeal to students who could finish in four years elsewhere.

The attendees wrapped up the meeting with resolutions endorsing the university-private sector dialogue and encouraging further exchange through surveys and symposia. The full text of these resolutions will accompany a complete report on the meeting in a future issue of the Bulletin of the AMS. Overall, said Smith, "I thought the meeting was extremely successful. The private sector panel had some eye-opening remarks to make about deficiencies in the academic sector. I'm not sure that universities can address all of these concerns. Nevertheless, the panel did provide a lot of food for thought."

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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 10:18:15 MDT 2000