LOCAL GOVERNMENT PROVIDES REWARDING CAREER FOR CIVIL ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGISTS
Like many young students approaching high school graduation in the late ‘70s, Bill Sims didn’t really have a good sense of a future career path. He was interested in construction and decided civil engineering was worth exploring.
His grades were good but, he soon discovered, not good enough to get into a civil engineering program at any of Ontario’s top engineering schools.
Somewhat dejected, Bill decided to take a year off but then noticed a classified ad offering places in the civil engineering technology program at Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology in Hamilton, Ontario.
“So I thought, ‘well that sounds interesting’ and applied. I was accepted and absolutely loved it,” he says.
The three-year co-op program provided what Bill describes as a solid technical foundation to prepare graduates to support engineers in design, construction and planning. It included 12 months of work experience which meant students graduated with practical experience under their belts.
Bill spent the next few years building a resume that included work on construction sites, in municipal engineering, design and project management eventually ending up in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
“I thought working for a local government would look good on my resume, so I joined the City of Nanaimo and resolved to stay for three or four years,” he says.
That was 27-years ago, and Bill is still in Nanaimo having risen through the ranks to be the City’s General Manager of Engineering and Public Works, a post he has held for the past five years.
“Working for the City really opened my eyes,” he says. “I came in with all the prejudices many people have about municipal workers. But the staff were showing up every day to serve the public interest and that really appealed to me, to my ethic. I believe service to others is why we’re here.”
And it’s the service aspect on working in local government that appeals most to Bill.
“You have a very tangible and direct impact on people’s day-to -day lives,” he says. “Just one example is the safe drinking water municipalities provide. Every morning we all get up and take a shower or have a glass of water and make our coffee and we flush our toilets and so on. Without that service our lives would be so much more difficult.”
But it’s not just the daily service aspect of local government work that attracts Bill – he also likes the big infrastructure and had the opportunity a few years ago to work on a $50-million water treatment plant project for the City, which he describes as “one of those once-in-a-career projects.”
When asked what his current position entails, Bill says jokingly that he is still trying to figure it out for himself. In essence, he is responsible for the organization and direction of the entire Engineering and Public Works Division – everything from infrastructure and asset management to capital planning, construction projects, engineering and design.
“We protect, maintain, operate and manage the City’s assets on the engineering and public works side as well, including vehicle and equipment fleets, cemeteries, sanitation, recycling, sewer systems, drainage and water supply – and a lot more in between,” says Bill.
As one of three general managers, Bill reports directly to the City Manager and is responsible for a staff of approximately 160.
A constant challenge of local government work is striving to meet ever-rising public expectations.
“In general, people want more and more services, cleaner streets, more swimming pools and ice rinks and so on. But there’s a disconnect when it comes to paying for it, and that may be the greatest challenge in my job, trying to make that connection in a positive way by demonstrating value the City is providing every day. In a way, that’s my life,” he says.
Bill believes humility is an important character trait for work in local government – indeed in any career.
“It’s easy to have the attitude that ‘people don’t know or appreciate all we do for them,’ but that’s how I prefer it,” he says. “We’ve had our emergencies in Nanaimo and the public has said ‘great work, you saved a community.’ Our response is ‘just doing my job, that’s what I’m here for.’ We are happy to be able to provide the support and be of service.”
Looking back to when he started out as a civil engineering technologist, Bill says he could never have imagined being where he is now.
“Just the thought of it would have been very intimidating,” he says. “But as I progressed through my career, I leaned on people around me for support or I leaned into the responsibilities of the role and over time I’ve become comfortable with those responsibilities.”