Research Summary

Barriers and perceptions of natural resource careers by minority students

Increasing Diversity in the Natural-Resource Field

The Journal of Environmental Education

There are numerous complex reasons that individuals from non-White racial and ethnic minority backgrounds traditionally have been underrepresented in natural resource-related fields. Previous research has suggested that common reasons may include lack of exposure to the outdoors, lack of knowledge about the field, and lack of academic support, among others. With the intention of helping academic institutions and nonprofit organizations enhance their support of minority students entering careers in these areas, this study focused on two of those reasons: barriers to and perceptions of careers in the field. This study also focused on minority students’ motivations for entering careers in natural resources.

The researchers worked with college-aged students majoring in natural resources and liberal arts, and they compared the students’ perceptions and career motivations related to careers in natural resources. The researchers framed the study around three research questions: what factors motivated career choice among both groups of undergraduates; what barriers to natural-resource career paths affected students, particularly minorities; and what perceptions both groups of students hold related to those careers.

As a framework to guide a two-phase study, the authors used social cognitive career theory, which proposes that self-efficacy and outcome expectations influence career interests. The study’s first phase included structured and semi-structured interviews. The second phase included focus group discussions with questions about career motivations and barriers; those questions emerged from the interviews. The authors focused on the most commonly mentioned motivations and barriers during each of the focus groups.

The focus group activities included individual reflection time, a ranking exercise, and an open discussion. With the ranking exercise, the researchers sought patterns that provided insight into the group’s perceptions of natural-resource careers. The students ranked, in order of importance, barrier and motivation statement cards. With this process and using Q methodology and factor analysis to assess the students’ responses, the authors identified the most influential motivations and barriers.

To address the first research question about factors motivating career choice for natural-resource majors and liberal-arts majors, the authors found that all of the natural-resource students recalled having positive outdoor experiences as children. Influential adults and media were the biggest motivators for careers in natural resources. The authors used factor analysis to categorize the students’ motivations for a natural-resource-related career into five factors, or groupings. Each factor represented groups of individuals with a shared perspective: experience with environmental problems and outdoor recreation; family vacations and nature/ science media; jobs and research experience; influential teachers and museums or nature centers; and concern for the environment. The authors found no patterns within students’ race or gender that influenced the categorization of the five factors.

The second question explored the barriers for students— particularly minority students—pursuing natural-resource careers. In the interviews, natural-resource majors were most likely to indicate that school difficulty and family pressure created barriers for them; liberal-arts majors most often mentioned outsider perceptions and school difficulty. Minorities in both majors cited family pressure to follow traditional career paths as an important barrier. Using factor analysis, the authors categorized the focus group barrier statements into six factor groups: financial issues; ethnic and racial issues; self-confidence and gender issues; lack of knowledge about career opportunities; money problems; and lack of role models. Again, the researchers did not identify any race or gender patterns among responses.

Finally, the authors addressed the perceptions of students from both majors regarding natural-resource careers. The authors found that students from both majors perceived natural-resource careers as being exotic, involving a lot of travel, and providing a low salary/pay structure. Although natural-resource majors felt that they would make a positive impact on the world, they also had a sense that careers in the field were prone to stereotyping and lacked perceived societal value. Liberal-arts majors viewed natural resource-related careers as dangerous, rare, and more of a hobby than a career.

Based on the researchers’ findings, and similar to past studies, the authors suggest that a relationship exists between spending time outdoors and the likelihood of pursuing a career in natural resources. The authors also suggest that environmental education experiences that encourage outdoor exploration and solidify family values can influence future career choices. The findings regarding barriers to natural resource-related careers echo prior research: a lack of family support, as well as discrimination and stereotypes, are particularly important barriers for minority students entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or related fields, such as natural resources. Additionally, the respondents also reported a lack of confidence as a salient barrier.q

The Bottom Line

By identifying the motivations and barriers that influence career choices of students—especially those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds—in pursuing natural-resource careers, the authors suggest that environmental education provides many opportunities for encouraging, developing, and supporting interest in those careers for youth. The authors recommend that environmental educators focus on creating positive natural resource-related experiences for diverse groups of children and families. They also suggest that further research is needed to evaluate the effects of such programs on individuals’ career goals and choices.