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Where Passion and Water Meet: A Student’s Journey to His Dream Green Job

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment

Editor's Note: This post is an excerpt from the University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management blog

By the UW Sustainable Management team
Can you say, with complete assurance, that you have found your calling in life? Nate Tillis can. He’s an operations manager at a wastewater treatment plant, as well as a soon-to-be college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Management from the University of Wisconsin. And every day, he works to preserve one of the planet’s most precious resources: water.

His journey began in a pizza shop with a friendly sanitarian. Back then, Nate was a teenager in Milwaukee, just out of high school with a wife and a child on the way. He worked in the restaurant, cooking and delivering pizzas, but he knew he had to do something different. He needed a job that would better provide for his family.

A driven, friendly and easy-going guy, Nate quickly formed a friendship with the restaurant’s health inspector, occasionally asking him about sanitation. It was the inspector who suggested an associate's degree program at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Nate enrolled, intending to become a sanitarian himself. The first year of school involved chemistry and lab work — but it also focused on soil and water.

The force of nature leads to a sustainability career

Water. That really caught Nate’s attention and reminded him of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of Chinese proverbs he has been fascinated with since high school.

“I was raised Christian, but I wanted to explore what else was out there. So I read the Koran, the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Tao Te Ching. That’s when I had my great awakening. It’s still the book that resonates most with me,” he said.

Taoist philosophy teaches that nature influences our thoughts and behavior and uses the analogy of water often. For Nate, it felt in line with what he wanted to achieve in life and his background in martial arts, which his uncle introduced him to as a kid.

Appreciation for water becomes a full-time job

By the time he finished one year of the MATC program, Nate’s interest in health inspection was overshadowed by his fascination with industrial wastewater.

“I interned at a wastewater plant, and I really liked it!” Once he finished his associate's degree, he applied for a full-time position at the Waukesha Wastewater Treatment Plant and was hired as an operator. Nate worked there for 10 years, learning the ins and outs of the water treatment process.

How does a wastewater plant work? Nate says underground pipes bring all the contaminated water from houses and buildings to the plant. Pumps raise the elevation of the water, and gravity causes it to flow through the rest of the process. Basically, the treatment plant speeds up a river’s natural purification process by creating narrow and wide spots that clean the water, and then discharges it into the Fox River. A large plant like Waukesha’s processes 8 million to 10 million gallons of water per day.

As an operator, Nate did things like open valves, grab water samples, assess how the plant is doing and monitor lab work.

Finding the perfect degree

In 2010, he enrolled in University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management, an online 63-credit bachelor’s completion program. “I always knew I would get my bachelor’s degree. I liked the field I was in, but I wanted to keep going with my education and move forward in my career.”

When he found the UW Sustainable Management program, Nate liked that it was more specific than biology or business, but says, “Ultimately, I enrolled because I wanted to finish my four-year degree.”

As he progressed through the courses, the program became much more than that. “It’s essentially an environmental business degree — a great fit for me. It will make me attractive as a manager, but also keeps in line with ecology and sustainable development.”

Growing a sustainability career

Nate says, “A lot of people don’t think sustainable management relates to wastewater management, but it’s a really good degree to have if you want to move up in the field.”

And move up he has: He took an operations and maintenance supervisor position in Beloit for two years, but returned to Waukesha to be closer to his sons, now ages 10 and 15. The position he took (maintenance supervisor) was a lateral move, but nothing beat living near his family.

Plus, he loves the job he has now. He supervises a crew of 14, all in charge of maintaining the pumps at the plant and at different stations around town. Thousands of pieces of equipment need care to be able to run so the plant can keep performing.

Nate does many things as supervisor, such as schedule maintenance, coordinate training, review specifications of parts, and work on the budget. His crew also responds to storms and flooding emergencies, which can be challenging. Pumping stations around the city sometimes go out and lose power or communication. He and his crew are responsible for getting them back up and running.

Although a four-year degree isn’t required for his position, a University of Wisconsin credential is recognized and respected, and Nate says it definitely boosted his appeal as a job candidate over the other applicants. “I know that overall, it is going to be a big advantage in my career.”

Nate uses skills and knowledge he’s learned from the Sustainable Management program at work almost daily. “Recently, we were going through a major technological upgrade at the plant. Contractors were explaining how the new data system will work, and I was able to ask questions about how the data is stored and how we are going to use that information based on what I learned in the information technology course.”

“I love the people and the challenges. I feel like I’m making a difference. Water is probably our most precious resource — something that I think will take main stage in the future.”

Read the full post on the University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management blog

3p Contributor

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