Welcome to our interview series where we speak with purpose-driven and sustainability-focused professionals from around the globe. Every few weeks, we’ll dive into their journeys, learn about their wins and challenges, and the resources they couldn’t do without.
Prepare to be inspired and learn something new!
Today’s guest is Jordan Pogorzelski, a career environmentalist, stormwater program and sustainability research coordinator.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are, your background, and your current job. What inspired you to start a career in sustainability and what was your journey to where you are now?
Hello! I’m happy to be here. My name is Jordan Pogorzelski and I consider myself to be a career environmentalist. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Conservation and Environmental Science and started my career working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a regulator. I gained valuable insight into how manufacturing operations interact with regulatory requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. As I searched for new opportunities in both career and life, I moved to Salt Lake City and took a job as the Stormwater Program Coordinator for the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). I oversee stormwater compliance at over 100 active construction sites per year as well as 23 UDOT-owned facilities. I’m also working part-time as a Sustainability Research Intern at an online wholesale marketplace of construction materials called AMAST.
Working for the DNR was a dream come true – As a child, I admired the game wardens out on the lakes while fishing with my father. Although I did not become a game warden, I was actively protecting our natural resources in the environmental compliance industry. My passion for the natural world drove me towards this career. I wanted a rewarding career that would help move humanity in a positive direction. A career that I could be proud of at the end of my life!
What’s your day-to-day like?
Every day is different! I spend about 30% of my time in the field conducting oversight inspections at UDOT facilities and construction sites. The rest of my time is spent responding to emails and phone calls, reviewing SWPPP permits, sitting in meetings, and training UDOT staff. I am also responsible for overseeing the illicit discharge detection and elimination program, which is a fancy way to say ‘spills’. I occasionally respond to roadway spills within UDOT Right of Way and oversee the cleanup efforts.
Lastly, I co-manage a budget of $23 million dedicated to stormwater improvements at UDOT facilities. I identify issues at our facilities and then work with design engineers to develop solutions. I coordinate with facility staff to optimize our designs so that it doesn’t interfere with their operations and then see the project through to completion.
What do you like the most about the work you do?
I enjoy a healthy balance of field and desk work. Jobs that require a huge amount of field work seem laborious and unenjoyable to me. In my current position, I can pick and choose where and when I conduct my oversight inspections. Jobs that require too much desk work can become monotonous. My current position offers an incredibly healthy balance between the two.
Another perk is being able to explore the different geographic regions of Utah. UDOT facilities and construction projects are scattered throughout the entire state, so many of my drives include breathtaking views of the Wasatch Mountains.
How does your work address societal and/or environmental issues?
The stormwater discipline falls within the Clean Water Act, so all of my work revolves around protecting and improving water quality. In the stormwater discipline, our focus is protecting surface waters from erosion and sedimentation. The construction industry alone is the largest contributor to the world’s sediment transfer by far. By implementing Best Management Practices BMPs) at construction sites, we are able to limit the amount of sediment that pollutes our surface waters. Excessive turbidity in surface waters prevents vegetation from receiving adequate sunlight, suffocates fish and other wildlife, and much more. Just a ‘little dirt’ can have a huge impact on the sensitive ecosystem of a waterbody.
In your experience, what are the main challenges of working with mission-driven and sustainability-focused businesses?
The greatest struggle by far is getting buy-in from your business. I’m fortunate to have great support from upper management, but getting buy-in and intentional participation from our contractors, construction workers, and facility staff has been a huge challenge. Although many of these regulations have been around since the 1970’s, they have widely been ignored by the regulated community. Only recently have regulatory bodies been allocated the funding necessary to employ staff to enforce these regulations. Many businesses have been ‘doing things the same way for years’ and are reluctant to change their ways or accept that their current method is wrong.
Many folks that I work with find it difficult to grasp how runoff from their construction sites can negatively impact the environment. People just don’t see sediment as a pollutant of concern. I am constantly hosting training sessions and presentations for my staff to help them understand the scale of it all.
Is there anything that you do outside of your work that is driven by similar (sustainability) objectives?
Everything! I practice what I preach by taking shorter showers, being conscious of energy consumption, purchasing sustainable goods, and so on. My community recently stopped accepting recyclables so I started a program to collect municipal recyclables and dispose of them at a recycling center myself.
In your opinion, what are the top skills necessary to be successful at a “green job”?
Adaptability. Green jobs have only recently been put into the spotlight. Businesses recognize the advantages in the market to brand themselves as a sustainable organization, but don’t really know what that entails. Green initiatives are moving targets right now, so it’s important to be adaptable and have cross-disciplinary knowledge. For example, don’t just be an expert in decarbonization, because in five years people could no longer care about decarbonization and be on to the next hot topic. The plastic straw crisis is a prime example of this: businesses went wild to reduce plastic usage, but now plastics are less commonly talked about and the focus has shifted towards decarbonization.
What green careers/sectors do you see growing the fastest right now and/or will become mainstream within the next 10 years?
Renewable energies, decarbonization, waste reduction, and recycling are the obvious answers. The less obvious answer is the sector that I work in currently – environmental compliance. Many businesses have adopted strict 2030 sustainability goals without any understanding of the work that it actually requires. Many businesses are initiating these lofty sustainability goals without having even baseline environmental compliance issues figured out. It’s my belief that sustainability starts with environmental compliance. Environmental compliance is just ‘doing the bare minimum’ to make sure that your business doesn’t get in trouble. Sustainability is intentionally going above and beyond the regulatory requirements to collectively tackle global environmental issues. Many businesses have put the cart before the horse with their sustainability goals and will be realizing that within the next ten years.
Environmental compliance has historically been handled by Environmental, Health, and Safety professionals (EHS). As regulations continue to progress and become more stringent, EHS professionals are simply too overwhelmed to have a deep understanding of how the regulations apply to their industry. EHS professionals frequently prioritize safety needs over environmental needs. In my experience, this has led to compliance issues. Within the next 10 years, you’ll see environmental compliance roles pop up to relieve the pressure off of overwhelmed EHS professionals.
What are the most common mistakes or misperceptions you have seen when it comes to green careers?
At least in my experience, there are many little victories along the way instead of multiple large victories. When I first started out in my career, I envisioned myself busting large-scale polluters and single-handedly saving the environment. It’s not like that. We joke that environmental compliance is 90% documentation and only 10% doing. We spend a lot of time reviewing permits, inspection records, annual reports, analytical data, etc. I’m not the environmental superhero that I thought I’d be, but the work is still incredibly rewarding.
You have a diverse background and experience working in Environmental Compliance. Could you highlight some of the key differences and potential green career paths within industries/sectors you’ve worked with?
Environmental compliance encompasses disciplines such as stormwater, wastewater, air quality, waste management, toxic release inventories, hazardous materials, transportation, safety, spill planning and response, wetlands, and much more. I consider myself to be a subject-matter expert in the stormwater discipline as well as the hazardous waste discipline. If you work in a regulatory setting, then you’ll most likely have to become a subject-matter expert in one of the above mentioned disciplines. If you work amongst the regulated community, particularly in a manufacturing setting, then you likely won’t be a subject-matter expert in any discipline, but rather will need a broad knowledge base of many different disciplines and how they apply to your operations.
Getting your foot in the door in environmental compliance typically starts with an administrative role or a field technician role. The next step is an environmental specialist, who specializes in one or two disciplines. From there, you should look for an environmental compliance coordinator position. A coordinator position is the step in between a specialist role and a managerial role. Coordinators interact with operations and really drive the compliance of a program. A managerial role is the next step that oversees a team of environmental staff that drive compliance initiatives.. At most companies, a managerial role is as high as you’ll get. If the company is large or just very committed to environmental initiatives, then a career path could progress to a director role or even a c-suite role.
Any “lessons learned” or advice you can share with others looking to succeed in their purpose-driven career?
Don’t become stagnant! Constantly challenge yourself and look for ways to improve. If you feel stagnant at a job or feel that you’ve plateaued, then move on to the next job. I see way too much complacency in the environmental field. Being a go-getter and a life-long learner will set you apart from the pack!
What inspires you every day to wake up and keep going?
Future generations! It makes me sick to think about how ignorantly destructive humanity is to our natural world. I want my children’s children to enjoy the recreational opportunities that I had growing up. I genuinely feel that my work is helping move humanity in the right direction.
Jordan Pogorzelski holds a BA in Conservation and Environmental Science from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He started his career at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources working in the Bureau of Waste and Materials Management. Soon after, his life goals brought him out to Salt Lake City, Utah to work as the Stormwater Program Coordinator at the Utah Department of Transportation. He also works as a part-time Sustainability Research Coordinator for a start-up called AMAST, an online wholesaler marketplace for construction materials. Jordan is currently pursuing an MBA with a specialization in Sustainability Management and Analytics at Concordia University. In his free time, Jordan enjoys the many recreational opportunities that Utah has to offer. He likes to explore the outdoors by hiking, camping, fishing, and snowboarding.
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