|(Photo by Bob Henson.)|
SalariesFour of the companies represented at the October meeting employ sizeable numbers of meteorologists:
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.
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.)
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.
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 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."
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.