NIOSH ERC Funding Crisis: A Student’s Perspective
by Tran Huynh
I recently learned from my program director at the University of Minnesota about President Obama’s FY 2012 budget proposal for the Department of Human Health and Services. The proposal suggests a 17 percent cut in the NIOSH budget, which includes the elimination of federal funding of $24.3 million for the 17 Education and Resource Centers (ERC) across the United States.
These university-based ERCs support graduate degree programs and research training for students in the occupational health and safety field. In addition, these centers also offer continuing education for occupational health practitioners so that they are equipped with the latest information to improve worker health and safety.
As a trainee under the ERC, I am very concerned about the future of these centers. If the funding is eliminated, this will significantly and negatively impact the number of future students entering the field, as well as the quality of training and education that future students will receive.
Compared to other public health graduate degree programs, occupational health is not a popular degree among students. Because the field is highly specialized and field-based, job opportunities in health departments are very limited. OSHA and MSHA are the two main government agencies that deal with occupational health issues, but these agencies often face budget cuts and can only hire a limited number of inspectors. That leaves the private sector as the primary source of employment for occupational health professionals.
Most small, mid-size and even large mining and manufacturing companies usually employ a bare minimum number of health professionals for compliance purposes. Unlike opportunities for graduates with an engineering or business degree, in the private sector, occupational health job prospects are limited to these highly specialized, skilled professionals because they are usually perceived as extra cost. So when it comes to cost reduction, health and safety unfortunately are among the first lines to be affected.
The lack of awareness of the profession, coupled with the limited job opportunities at health departments and in the private sector, makes recruitment of students into the field very challenging. Thus, besides promotional materials and effort, training grants are an important incentive to recruit students to take at least a few introductory classes to explore the profession.
Currently, even with the existing training grants, the number of students enrolled in the program is very small compared to other public health programs such as epidemiology and biostatistics that don’t offer such incentive. I am afraid without the financial incentive at the beginning, the number of students entering the profession will quickly dwindle, resulting in shortages of occupational health professionals to adequately protect the growing work force.
A Rewarding Path
Even though job opportunities seem limited, once students get to work, occupational health and safety can be a very rewarding career path. That is why the majority of graduates remain in the field. The challenge is to get them interested in the first place.
Elimination of the ERCs will affect the quality of training and education of students and practitioners. Like any other field, research and the dissemination of research results in order to improve practices is essential to protect workers’ health. New technology such as nanotechnology will bring new hazards that need careful evaluation to balance economic benefits and the public health.
These centers are not only an essential funding source for researchers-in-training and research projects that help to advance the occupational health field (besides NIOSH projects), but they also provide a channel to disseminate the latest information to practitioners through continuing education programs. Without the centers, we will not be able to attract qualified students and support research projects pertinent to the field.
ERC: Investing in the Future
According to NIOSH statistics, these ERCs supply approximately 75 percent of the occupational health and safety professionals responsible for protecting the health of the work force. These highly skilled professionals are undoubtedly one of the greatest returns expected from investment in these ERCs.
I would also like to point to a less obvious benefit resulting from investing money in trainees: the contribution of ex-trainees to help current students and to enrich the programs. For example, since I have started in the industrial hygiene program, I have seen a handful of ex-trainees, now very successful professionals, come back to volunteer their time and expertise as guest speakers, serve on advisory board for the center and reach out to current students so they can get a head-start on their career path. The fruit that current students receive is a result of the seed the ERC planted years ago. Because these ex-trainees at one time received assistance in their career, they are more motivated to help the next generations. These people are inspiring examples for current students like me who would like to continue this tradition of giving back.
I understand that in times of budgetary crisis, it is necessary to make sacrifices for the good of the country. If it means that the ERC will have smaller operating budget and current students, like me, will no long receive stipend for training or only have partial tuition coverage, I am OK with that. However, total elimination of the ERC will be catastrophic to future students, the future of occupational health and safety field and subsequently to our work force.
While it may seem that occupational health field is not so crucial right now because of the economic downturn, when our economy recoveries in a few years, more people will enter the work force and more occupational health professionals will be needed to protect our workers.
I sincerely ask that our elected officials consider a temporary reduction of funding for ERC during this crisis rather than complete elimination. When our economy recovers, it may cost more to rebuild the program so that our work force has an adequate supply of occupational health and safety professionals.
To learn more about the Education and Resource Centers and how to help save them, please visit: http://clients.criticalimpact.com/vm.cfm?i=daca62e0a8f27b99&jid=7ce958c35b7b0f98.