NIB Career Q&A: John Fischer, Branch Chief at MassDEP (2013 Speed Networking VIP)

John Fischer headshot

John Fischer, Branch Chief of Commercial Waste Reduction & Waste Planning at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. John will be one of six VIP guests at this year’s Speed Networking event, discussing Public/Private Partnerships. In his interview with Net Impact team member Katrina Stanislaw, John discusses his professional experience and perspective on finding a purposeful career path.

How did you first become interested in sustainability?

My roots in sustainability, and in environmental awareness and concern in general, go back to my childhood.  I don’t recall a particular event but, growing up, I became increasingly aware of and concerned about the quality of our environment.  That interest has carried forward throughout my life. I have shifted from a pure environmental advocate, to taking a more balanced view that encompasses multiple perspectives on environmental policy, including science, economics, and public policy.  This perspective is why I chose to attend Connecticut College, which offered a holistic environmental studies program (called Human Ecology in my day) that combined the study of a wide array of academic disciplines in thinking about environmental issues.  I continued to take a similar approach through my Master’s in City Planning degree at MIT, focusing on environmental policy.

How did you get to your current position as Branch Chief, Commercial Waste Reduction & Waste Planning at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection?

As I mentioned above, I’ve been interested in working on environmental issues throughout my adult life.  My last career aspiration prior to that was probably playing centerfield for the New York Yankees, but that didn’t pan out.  (Yes, I am a Yankees fan.)  I did not specifically plan to work on solid waste and recycling issues for the past 18 years.  That was just a function of good luck and good timing, and following the opportunities that were available to me.  That path began for me with an internship working for the Director of Waste Policy at the then Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, back in 1995.  That worked out very well and I quickly learned that there is a lot more to recycling and waste management than meets the eye.  I’ve been working on those issues in varying capacities ever since.

Can you walk me through a typical day in your current job?

One of the good things about my job is that there is some variation day to day.  Most of my work is based in the office, including working on regulatory and policy development, managing contractors and staff, developing and implementing business assistance programs, conducting data analysis, and working on compliance and enforcement initiatives.  My days in the office are complemented by days going out and speaking at meetings and conferences, or doing inspections at solid waste facilities.  In the world of recycling, composting, and waste reduction, there are always new and evolving issues.  These days, I spend the majority of my time working to increase food waste diversion from disposal.

What’s the most interesting/most fun aspect of your job?

I really like working at the state level, where I have enough experience to take a broad, thoughtful perspective on a set of issues, but am also not so far removed from the on-the-ground implementation of programs.  In my work at MassDEP, it’s important that I have a sound understanding of how various recycling and waste reduction programs work operationally at the same time as understanding the big picture.  I also greatly appreciate the people I work with.

What’s the best networking advice you’ve ever been given?

This is easier to answer by telling about the worst networking advice I feel I’ve received.  That was from someone who insisted that I should have a specific plan for where I want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and everywhere else along the way.  In fact, this person felt it was a waste of time to speak with me if I didn’t have such a plan laid out.  While I do agree that it’s important to have a sense of direction and focus in one’s career, I also believe it’s important to stay open to a broad range of opportunities.  There is so much interesting work going on at so many interesting organizations in and around Boston, I think it’s very important not to get tunnel vision about your career.  From a simple math standpoint, thinking about a broader range of opportunities improves your odds of finding more interesting opportunities.  If I had followed this advice I received, I would not have pursued my initial opportunity working on solid waste and recycling issues and would have closed off what has been a great career path for me.

Where do you go from here?

While I try to heed my own advice above, there is so much interesting work to do in my current job that I can’t see doing anything else at this point.  One of the other good things about my work at MassDEP is that while I technically have had the same job since 2001, my job has gone through 3 major evolutions. This has kept my work fresh.  My latest role began in 2011, when I took over responsibility for the state’s commercial waste reduction programs.  I enjoy this work a great deal and, despite the progress that has been made, there is so much that we can accomplish in this area.

John will be attending the June 4, 2013 Speed Networking event as a VIP on the topic area of Public/Private Partnerships.  Click here for more information about the event.

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