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Jobs bloom from a cleaner environment

CNBC CNBC 6/05/2016 Mary Thompson

© Provided by CNBC On a clear day in East Providence, Rhode Island, dirt-filled dump trucks, bulldozers and a man with a hose engage in a carefully choreographed dance. 

The dump trucks unload the dirt, bulldozers push it down a smooth, sloped embankment near the Providence River, and the worker hoses it down. This is repeated dozens of time in the course of a work day, part of a plan to make the former industrial site free of contaminants and available for future development.

The company doing the work is Arcadis (ARCAD-NL). The global engineering and consulting firm is headquartered in the Netherlands and works around the world on water, infrastructure and construction projects. The fastest growing part of its business is in the United States.

"Cleanup by far is the bigger piece of the (environmental) business, if you look at revenue generation," said John Jastrem, CEO of Arcadis North America. "North America has the strongest regulations and the best way to enforce those regulations."

Environmental work accounts for 65 percent of the company's revenue, said Jastrem. He said most of it is done at mining sites or sites that have been used by "extraction" industries like oil and natural gas. And while Jastrem acknowledges regulation is the primary motivator for firms undertaking this work, he said there is also an attitude among North American companies that cleaning up the mistakes of the past provides a long-term good for the community.

So for Arcadis (ARCAD-NL) and others that do this remediation work, their services are in high demand, along with the services of the workers who oversee the projects.

"Demand for environmental engineers is extremely high right now," said Frank De Safey, president of Sequence Staffing, an environmental recruiting firm. "If I could get some genetic material and shoot it into individuals to create a five-to-seven-year professional, an environmental engineer, I would be a very wealthy man."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that from 2014 to 2024, the number of environmental engineering jobs in the U.S. will increase by 12 percent, almost double the expected rate of growth for all jobs. One of the firms that will be hiring is Arcadis. 

"We're looking to hire approximately 400 engineers and scientists this year," said Jastrem, who expects the 3,000-person company will add 15 to 20 percent more workers each year for the next five years.

Given that Arcadis competes with Silicon Valley, the pharmaceutical industry and others for talent, the company has gone to great lengths to get the attention of future employees early in their education. Jastrem said it partners with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) high schools around the country through a program that allows students to come to Arcadis and be "an engineer for a day."

Arcadis has also nurtured relationships with over 100 colleges and has developed strong ties with 30 of those schools, including the Colorado School of Mines, Penn State and Georgia Tech.

"We prefer to hire right out of school, and we're well positioned to do that because of the career pathing and training programs we have to take them on," said Jastrem.

Arcadis pays these new hires $50,000 to $75,000 a year. Salaries increase if an employee has advanced degrees or professional licenses.

Jastrem said while a prospective hire's intellect is a key reason they are recruited, the firm also looks for those who can collaborate. He said ultimately the engineers work on a team with other engineers, biologists and chemists all of whom need to work together to find the most innovative, cost-effective solutions to the problems they are trying to solve.

They also want people who see their job as something more than a means to a paycheck.

"A lot of this comes down not only to the aptitude, or the ability, but also the desire on the part of many of these students to say I want to put my career into a place that is clearly going to make the world better," he said.

The belief she is making a difference in a community is one reason 26-year-old Chelsea Francis is happy with her current job as a Water Resource Engineer at Arcadis. For the last three months, she has been working on building a waste water treatment plant for two small towns in Arizona.

"I felt like I needed to be a part of that," she said.

Francis has been a part of Arcadis since the summer of her senior year in high school, when she landed an internship that had her working on a road map for the city of Phoenix. She stayed with the firm through college and graduate school, as Arcadis allowed her to work part time, as her schedule allowed.

Francis traces her interest in engineering to a contest in eight grade when she and her fellow students in a technology class were tasked with building a spaghetti bridge. With the help of her grandfather, who was also an engineer, Francis built a bridge laced with the structure Francis learned was the strongest, a triangle. She won the contest.

"We built as many triangles into my design as possible," she said.

While Francis holds a B.A. in chemical engineering from Arizona State University, she said she realized during college she did not want to be a chemical engineer. She said she really liked the environmental side of engineering, and so went on to receive a master's degree in civil engineering and sustainable engineering from ASU.

"I mean I get to work with water and really make a difference in the community," she said.

For the two communities in Arizona, the difference is expected to be felt in two years, when Francis said the plant will be completed. For the industry Francis works in, the difference in the coming years is expected to be more work in North America, and more work around the globe, as other countries realize the value of cleaning up past mistakes to give communities and businesses a fresh start.

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