Ken Vogel made his career change voluntarily -- but the instability in the oil industry certainly was a factor when he decided to move into the field of environmental geology.
Vogel joined Exxon's offshore/Alaska exploration group right out of graduate school, and from 1985 to 1990 worked on projects all over the United States. However, in 1990 the company was looking to reduce the number of its E&P geoscientists -- obviously a concern.
"I had a co-worker in the company that had joined the downstream marketing department at Exxon, working on environmental issues," he said. "He seemed to be having fun and doing interesting work, so in 1990, when things were in flux, I indicated I would be interested in a non-exploration/production position."
He was invited to join the downstream marketing department's environmental efforts, taking over management of environmental issues for Exxon's East Coast distribution network from Virginia to Maine.
"It was interesting and challenging work," he said. "I had very little training, but exploration work and environmental work are strikingly similar in many respects."
For example, he continued, prior to conducting an exploration-drilling program, geoscientists collect nearby well data and review what has been found before, review the regional geology and make logistical plans. In the environmental field, to assess the soil and groundwater quality of a property, you access historical reports, talk to people familiar with the area, review what's been found in previous soil borings or monitoring wells and put those bits of information together -- including construction of cross sections and contour maps of contaminants isoconcentrations in groundwater or soil.
After two years in his new job, Exxon announced another company-wide voluntary separation program for geoscientists. Vogel had been in contact with a friend from graduate school who was working in the environmental field, and when this voluntary separation program was announced he saw it as an opportunity to move back to the Midwest -- close to extended family.
"I knew it was now or never if I was going to leave Exxon," he said. "At some point you get too comfortable with the salary and benefits to make the break.
"I was lucky enough to be offered a position with Leggette, Brashears & Graham Inc. in St. Paul (Minn.), the oldest groundwater firm in the United States," he said.
Vogel and his wife weighed the pros and cons, then chose to leave big oil and start a new career in environmental consulting.
Leaving a major oil company, he said, was not an easy decision.
"The salary and benefits are excellent and the professional challenges and resources at your disposal are impressive," he commented. "I took a sizable salary cut to make the move, but I recognized that a person with a good work ethic and job performance could enjoy rapid personal career development in the environmental consulting field.
"For me personally it has been a fantastic change in career. I have enjoyed every minute of the ride and I've never looked back. Exxon was a great company to work for, but it was clear to me that I was probably not going to have the kind of professional development or career advancement that I had hoped to achieve in the exploration industry," he said.
"One of the things that attracted me to the consulting business is the individual opportunities to really make a meaningful contribution right out of the blocks," he said. "With an independent consulting firm much of what you do is your responsibility -- there's more independence and control over your daily work, and you sink or swim on your decisions."
Geologists considering a transition from petroleum geology to environmental geology need to research the environmental firms they might be joining, he suggested. Not unlike the oil business, the environmental consulting industry is currently undergoing a contraction.
He also concedes that the two years of environmental work at Exxon prepared him for the move.
"People who are perhaps involuntarily getting out of the exploration and production business today are unlikely to have the kind of opportunity I had at Exxon," he said. "It may be necessary to take environmental science classes before you make that transition.
But essentially the geologic principles are not that different," he added. "It's just a different scale and different vocabulary."