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Winter 1998

The changing employment scene for meteorology: How universities are adapting

(Photo by Bob Henson.)

Salaries

Four of the companies represented at the October meeting employ sizeable numbers of meteorologists:

  • AccuWeather, with a staff of 350, has about 93 full-time meteorologists. The company fills about 10-15 meteorology positions each year, choosing from among 200-300 applicants. For a new hire with a plain-vanilla B.S. in meteorology, the starting salary is around $20,000 a year.

  • The 600-person Weather Channel staff includes 85 meteorologists, with 2-5 new hires per year and growth expected to level off after 2000. The starting salary there is about $30,000, but new hires usually have three to five years' experience. On-air personalities are compensated at a much higher rate.

  • DTN Kavouras employs about 50 meteorologists out of 150 staff; 30 of these are forecasters, and 20 have moved to other positions in the company. New hires start at $20-25,000 a year.

  • WSI has 170 employees in the United States and 40 in the United Kingdom; 65 have meteorology degrees, and most of these are not working as forecasters. Salaries start around $25,000 a year.

  • For comparison, the NWS Denver office would pay a newly hired GS-5 (entry-level) meteorologist slightly under $22,000 a year.

    Pirone (WSI) and James Block (DTN Kavouras) noted that a new employee with additional training, such as a relevant minor or subject specialization, might start $10,000 higher. They also agreed that their employees can double their initial salaries in under a decade by moving out of forecasting.

    Jimmie Smith (Alden Electronics, Westborough, Massachusetts) recently hired two meteorologists straight out of college for $30-35,000 per year. He noted that his company must offer this high a salary to be competitive with other industries. Even so, one of his two new hires left Alden within a year for a $45,000 job in a computer firm.

  • The 1990s have seen a huge shift in employment opportunities for new meteorologists. National Weather Service hiring has dropped from about 230 new professional staff in 1993 to what NWS director John J. Kelly calls "attrition-based" hiring--fewer than 40 per year--till at least 2002. Meanwhile, private-sector hiring has been increasing.

    Colleges and universities are now awarding 600-700 bachelor's degrees in meteorology annually. Only a few of these graduates will become federal forecasters. Are the rest getting the training they need to fit into the new employment picture? And where will they be picking up their paychecks?

    The heads and chairs of the nation's academic departments of atmospheric and related sciences addressed these issues at their biennial meeting on 8-9 October, sponsored jointly by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and UCAR. It was the second consecutive heads-and-chairs meeting to focus on employment. This year, participants discussed what skills the new employers want and how colleges and universities are adapting their programs to prepare students better. (The UCAR Quarterly's coverage of the 1996 meeting is on the Web at www.ucar.edu/quarterly/fall96/meteorology.html.)

    The weather industry

    At a panel discussion on 10 October, six private-sector representatives described their companies and their opportunities for employment. Maria Pirone of Weather Service International (WSI, Billerica, Massachusetts) began by presenting a new weather industry model. Weather information flows from data collection through service providers to the end users. While the data-collection end of the spectrum is still firmly in government hands, both the service providers and the users have changed. The providers are not only weather services but private companies offering "value-added products"--a much-used phrase at the meeting. The users include aviation, agriculture, commodities, local government, and utilities, as well as the general public.

    Panelists noted the vast amount of data that is available now, with more coming on line shortly. For example, Wayne Sand of Aviation Weather Consulting (Boulder) mentioned that one university is providing 500 "data products" an hour to a major airline today. But "I don't want to get a data dump in my cockpit," he said. "I want some information." The private sector has exploited that kind of need by interpreting and packaging the data to suit the customers, on the users' own schedules.

    The good news from industry is that there's plenty of growth potential. James Block of DTN Kavouras (Minneapolis, Minnesota) summed up, "I don't see any facet of our business shrinking because people are deciding they don't need weather information any more." More sobering is the fact that "We need a new breed of meteorologists," according to Sand.

    The need to diversify

    Raymond Ban of the Weather Channel (Atlanta, Georgia) said, "At the end of the day, what makes you or breaks you is the value you provide to the customer." This market reality requires meteorologists who have more than just forecasting skills. He likened today's meteorologist to a fighter pilot: "Being good at forecasting is like flying the airplane. You have to do it like breathing. What we're looking for now is people who can shoot as well as fly."

    Every panelist pointed out the need for skills from other disciplines. Most mentioned business, computer science, and communications. Joe Sobel of AccuWeather (State College, Pennsylvania) offered a wider list: besides the above, an ability to use data sets and knowledge of climatology and geography ("some applicants have no clue how high the Rocky Mountains are"). Block went even further, saying, "A student with passion in anything--engineering, chemistry, biomechanics, or whatever--will have more value to someone" and should be encouraged to foster that interest.

    The commercial forecasters need considerable communication skills to tailor their products for particular users, as opposed to NWS forecasters who use specified formats. The industry panelists were unanimous that most of their job applicants can't communicate well. Sobel noted that when he asked AccuWeather's new meteorology hires what they wished they'd had more of in college, the most common answer was increased opportunities to practice verbal and written communication.

    Some academic department heads reported that they are already beefing up their curricula in that area. A new AMS Statement on the Bachelor's Degree in Meteorology/Atmospheric Science, which received preliminary approval during the meeting, will require undergraduates to take a course in "technical, scientific, or professional writing" and another focusing on oral communication.

    The university response

    Some universities are already moving to meet the needs of the private sector. Richard Clark (Millersville University of Pennsylvania) described four new tracks for meteorology majors that his department is developing: computer science, chemistry, broadcast communications, and natural hazards/emergency management. These tracks will require students to give up electives in other areas but still allow them to earn a bachelor's degree in four years. Pennsylvania State University offers eight options: air quality, climatology, computer science, weather communications, hydrometeorology, teaching certification, graduate school preparation, and weather forecasting. Other faculty said they use the advising process to recommend minoring or specializing in these employable skills. Often this requires taking classes offered outside the meteorology department.

    The University of Oklahoma (OU) offers three areas of concentration--computer science, business, and architecture--in its meteorology B.S., and also offers a professional meteorology B.S., which began in fall 1997. Industry representatives are heavily involved in this degree, structuring the student's studies and sitting on his or her committee. Frederick Carr (OU) reported that it's been difficult to get sponsorships, even though a company is not required to hire its sponsored graduate. He asked the private sector to get involved.

    The industry representatives agreed that completing the specialized tracks would give job applicants a competitive edge. They also favored spending an extra year to pick up a second bachelor's in a related field or getting a master's degree in business administration (MBA). As Sobel said, "If you have two applicants, one with a master's and one with a B.S., you know which one is going to get hired." However, no one felt that a standard bachelor's degree in meteorology was insufficient preparation for today's job market, as long as the student had the necessary skills.

    Dennis Thomson (Penn State) noted, "Exploding enrollments provide opportunities for programs of every scale and emphasis." Urging a "healthy competition" among meteorology departments, he also suggested that colleges and universities, even those with only a few graduates each year, find a way to specialize. "Make your program the best in its niche."

    Beyond forecasting

    One message was clear from all panelists, academic and industrial: It's high time to think differently about careers in meteorology. John Snow (OU and AMS Commissioner for Education and Human Resources) felt that the meeting's emphasis on forecasting showed that the educators were still somewhat rooted in the old employment paradigm. "If we are successful in reinventing ourselves in the next decade, we will shift to programs that have a strong engineering flavor, that is, a strong focus on the design of meteorological products and the delivery of tailored weather information services."

    Pirone stressed that her company employs meteorologists in every kind of position, such as marketing, technology development, and customer support. They often are more successful there than employees with no science background; "When I start describing our products to MBAs, their eyes glaze over." What's more, the other positions pay better than forecasting. At WSI, most meteorologists move to another type of position within 12 months of employment.

    Even for those who want a lifelong forecasting career, the assumptions are changing. In a talk on 9 October, UCAR president Richard Anthes predicted that by 2025, "the data problem" would be solved and forecasts would largely be the province of computer models. Some attendees doubted that modeling could advance so far in such a short time. And Ron McPherson (formerly of NWS, now the AMS executive director designate) noted that even if we do attain perfect computer-generated forecasts, they will be probabilistic, so someone will have to interpret them. "There will still be people in the forecast loop, but their jobs are going to be different."

    Steven Ackerman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) imagined a "somewhat radical" view of the future in which weather forecasters might not graduate from a four-year college. Perhaps in the future the universities will focus on educating students in the geosciences, and forecasters will get sufficient training from a technical college. But the private-sector employers were leery about the idea of graduates with less science background. Ban agreed that, in the next decade, forecasters will become forecast systems managers. However, he summed up, "They'll still have to know what to do when the system fails"--how to forecast.


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