Applied Meteorology--Nonmedia and Media

The job market/salary outlook for operational meteorology--weather forecasting--is a good news/bad news message. The good news is that in spite of recent restructuring and downsizing in the NWS and a drop in the number of available military (air force and navy) commissioned officer and civilian forecaster positions since the end of the Cold War, both the NWS and military are hiring meteorologists, as is the private sector. Private sector opportunities actually are growing. This is due in part to private meteorology stepping into the void left when the NWS dropped some of its specialized forecasting services such as fruit frost warnings. It is also due to successful entrepreneurial ventures by many firms.

The NWS is bringing people on board again after a freeze on hiring in the mid-1990s. The number of new employees hired each year will vary but probably will range from about 50 to a couple of hundred. And despite the recent drop in the number of military forecaster jobs, opportunities remain. For instance, in the U.S. Air Force the number of weather officers brought onto active duty in recent years has actually been less than the number authorized (by about 20 percent in 1996). A spokesman for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research characterizes military service "as a truly great place to start a career because of its compensation, training, educational opportunities, and a chance to see the world." A number of meteorologists in the NWS and private industry began their careers on active duty with the military and then transferred to the reserve forces--a part-time commitment--while maintaining full-time civilian positions. An interesting and not necessarily widely known footnote about the reserves: most operational hurricane reconnaissance missions are flown by an air force reserve squadron, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, headquartered at Keesler AFB, Mississippi.

Now for the bad news, which does appear, however, to be getting better with time. Pay in private sector forecasting jobs has been relatively low compared with that of the NWS and military and even related disciplines such as environmental science. There are signs, however, that this is beginning to change. Private sector starting salaries for forecasters just out of school with a B.S. were primarily in the upper teens to low 20s at the beginning of the 1990s. Some larger companies, however, have recently pushed the upper end of the starting salary range toward the high 20s. This would compare favorably to NWS entry-level salaries in the low to mid-20s. Still, the NWS may have an edge, since advancement in the NWS historically has been much faster. For example, an intern typically has advanced to a significantly higher pay grade (low to mid-30s) within two years. Similarly, a military officer is rewarded with salaries in the upper 20s to mid-30s during his or her first couple of years on active duty. After two years in private industry, a forecaster with a B.S. may be hard pressed to reach the low 30s, even assuming her or she was hired at the high end of the entry-level range.

Meteorologists in the environmental science segment of the job market have significant upside potential depending on the job skills they learn, such as marketing, communications, and business development. After roughly five to seven years of employment in the environmental sciences, salaries can be lucrative. There is a wide range, though, from about $40,000 to $70,000 per year.

Starting salaries for airline meteorologists may be somewhat higher, perhaps by 10 to 20 percent, than those for many other jobs, but many airline positions require prior experience in supporting flight operations. Such experience typically is gained in the military or in some NWS jobs. Another factor that makes it challenging to obtain employment in airline meteorology is that personnel turnover in those jobs tends to be quite low.

At least one airline, it's worth noting, has indicated a need for Spanish-speaking meteorologists. There is, in fact, a market in the weather forecasting field for second-language fluency. The Weather Channel--Latin America, headquartered in Atlanta, provides a viable opportunity for both Spanish and Portuguese-speaking meteorologists, and a number of private firms, including television and radio stations, are always shopping for forecasters fluent in Spanish.

Back to salary issues, overall entry-level pay in meteorology--particularly in the private sector--typically is less than that for other scientific or technical fields. For instance, an engineer in "environmental science" may command a starting salary $8000 to $10,000 higher than his peers in atmospheric science. The reason for this, it has been speculated, is that much of the private sector does not value meteorologists due to a perceived narrowness of skills and viewpoint. Engineers, on the other hand, are regarded as willing "problem solvers" with a broad range of skills. (Recall the comments earlier on "education" as compared with "training.") Engineers in general, according to a 1997 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employes, can expect starting salaries in the mid-30s to low 40s (chemical engineers).

Computer engineering and computer science is "where it's at," of course. Multiple job offers and signing bonuses have pushed average starting salaries close to $40,000 for those hired into information systems (IS) departments. Even meteorologists with a background strong enough to be hired as an IS staffer can reasonably expect something in the $35,000 to $40,000 range, if not higher.

Broadcast meteorology--television and radio weathercasting--although offering high profile positions, does not necessarily offer commensurate salary profiles. Annual pay for a weathercaster just beginning his or her career at a small-market station is in the low to mid-20s. Overall, salaries in the field cover an enormous range. A 1992 AMS survey indicated the average salary for weathercasters who were AMS members was about $46,000. The survey also found the top 10 percent in the field raked in over $100,000 per year. Keep in mind, though, that the big six-figure salaries are confined to the top 10 or 20 television markets in the country (as defined by the population of the viewing area). There certainly are opportunities in the field, since only about half of the 2000-some broadcast weather jobs are held by degreed meteorologists.

Finally, a word on entry-level salaries and degree level. Given that positions are available, you will command a higher entry-level salary with a master's degree or Ph.D. than you will with a bachelor's. Of course, many young professionals with a master's, and most with a Ph.D., take research jobs, not forecasting positions.

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