Editor's Notebook: Mentoring Future Leaders

May 12, 2006
Proper mentoring is one way to make the occupational safety and health profession more attractive to students and young professionals.

by Sandy Smith

In April's issue, I talked to some of the country's leading occupational safety and health educators about the state of safety education. The discussion mostly focused on the quality of degree programs offered to fledgling safety professionals, industrial hygienists and occupational health professionals we all agreed the quality of safety education and safety educators was high and whether or not there will be enough degreed occupational safety and health and industrial hygiene professionals to meet the needs of business and government in the coming years.

"Enrollments are declining and universities are cutting back on programs," acknowledged Richard Fairfax, OSHA's director of Enforcement Programs. OSHA has lost or is losing a number of long-time employees to retirement, and Fairfax is feeling the pinch.

"From my perspective, in Washington, D.C., I have to contend with the high cost of living when hiring," Fairfax said. Companies are competing for the best students coming out of occupational safety and health programs around the country, with some students receiving multiple job offers that offer a higher starting pay than that offered in an entry-level government job.

Fairfax said he's finding it easier to hire employees who can write and analyze OSHA data, then have seasoned employees mentor them in EHS and encourage them to get professional certification later.

Other organizations, such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association, are actively recruiting and mentoring new members. AIHA is reaching out to student-members attending the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce), scheduled for May 13-18 in Chicago. The association's Students and Early Career Professionals Committee, chaired by Steven Lacey, Ph.D., has designed a program of activities to ensure that the students' experience is rewarding, and that allows time for them to network with people who already are practicing industrial hygienists.

AIHce 2006 will feature a Future Leaders Institute-sponsored Young Member Social featuring Chicago jazz, which helps students learn how to make the most of AIHce and break the ice with other conference-goers. The American Industrial Hygiene Foundation (AIHF) is holding a Recognition Reception and Local Section Council's Student Mixer to give student-members the chance to meet with this year's scholarship recipients and the Local Section Council. And a student lounge will be available for students to network and talk to AIHA members. In addition, 50 Chicago-area students have been sponsored to attend AIHce.

The competition to pull interested science and engineering and EHS students into IH is tough, Lacey admits, but "[w]ith the support of the group, we have mechanisms for outreach."

Said Lacey: "We are branding skills that are valuable in all types of industries all around the world."

Industrial hygienists probably have done as good a job of anyone of reaching out to high school and college students, but something more needed to be done, Lacey acknowledged. The fact that the Students and Early Career Professionals Committee went from a working group to an official AIHA committee in relatively short order "gives traction to our efforts to mentor students and young professionals," he said.

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