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Spotlight on a Regional YWP: Michael Carter

Michael, left, receiving the NSW Young Water Professional of the Year Award.

Regional AWA members have always been important to delivering water and sewage services across the country. This Spotlight article is part of a series highlighting the experiences and contributions our regional members make to their industry and communities. In this interview we learn about Michael Carter, Principal Process Engineer for Hunter H2O and the AWA NSW Young Water Professional of the Year for 2022. 

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and the work you do.

I’m a Principal Process Engineer at Hunter H2O working in the process and operations group and I've been working in Newcastle for the past 12 years. I’m originally from Scone (the horse capital of Australia), about 2 hours north-west-ish of Newcastle, along the New England Highway. I grew up on a dairy farm just outside of Scone, and in hindsight, I think it may have led me to become an engineer. Dairy farms involve managing irrigation networks, managing livestock and land, and constantly problem-solving. In fact, I decided to study engineering after my high school year advisor suggested I become an engineer because I was good at solving problems!

I work mainly on water treatment projects across the whole project lifecycle from strategic planning, all the way through design, commissioning and providing operational and technical support in partnership with local water utilities across NSW and Hunter Water. I love getting into the technical detail of process designs but also assisting clients to understand their issues and needs and charting pathways forward together.

Q: What brought you to work at Hunter H2O?

I think a bit of luck, or possibly the stars aligning. I graduated from the University of Newcastle in 2009, right at the height of the global financial crisis. It was hard at the time for graduates to get a job, and in fact, I applied for 20 different jobs when I left university and got 16 rejections (4 didn’t even get back to me). Soon after a job popped up at Hunter H2O, and I knew someone that worked there. They said it was a great place to work and that the water industry was generally pretty secure given you’ll always have to supply water and wastewater to communities as the population continues to grow. I applied for the position and was lucky to be one of two people hired out of over around 100 applicants. I think I was pretty lucky to get the role. I didn’t know at that time that I would love working for Hunter H2O so much. The projects are so interesting, unique and diverse, and I love working with the people I work with and the clients I work in partnership with.

Q: What is the best thing about working in a regional area?

Coming from Scone, I always thought that being an engineer would involve moving to a city. Newcastle would be considered a city, but it seems to be more relaxed than bigger capital cities like Sydney. I also find that working for a more regional organisation means there is a more relaxed work environment.

I also find I enjoy working in regional areas as, coming from Scone where the population is only about 6000 people, travelling through regional communities can remind me of home (but with fewer horses). I also find that people in regional areas are often down to earth and fun to work with, and you can often make more of an impact when solving water and wastewater issues to improve public health. Regional communities also face similar challenges to metro areas, but sometimes the challenges are more complex and the communities have to overcome this with far fewer resources and funding. There are so many unique challenges that only regional areas face and it's really fun taking those challenges on.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about working in a regional area?

I find one challenge with working in regional areas is highlighting and bringing attention to the issues that regional water utilities face. I did a lot of work with Seqwater and Hunter Water when I started at Hunter H2O, however, about 8 years ago I started working more and more with regional water utilities and noticed some inequality between the reliability and safety of drinking water in regional water utilities compared to the metro utilities. About a year or so after that, the Havelock North incident in New Zealand occurred, which highlighted to me the importance of preventing incidents from occurring rather than just waiting and reacting to them. Since then, I’ve tried to be as proactive as possible in voicing my concerns and raising awareness of water quality and safety in regional areas and highlighting that this is often a very real concern across regional Australia. I’ve spoken to various representatives from the key regulators including the Department of Planning and Environment and NSW Health, and am part of the working party working on the Town Risk Reduction Program. It will be a long journey, but I’m keen to raise awareness of the importance of water quality and safety in regional Australia.

Q: What moment/achievement are you most proud of in your professional career?

I’m lucky that I have a few achievements that I’m proud of. For one, I assisted 10 different Councils with acquiring funding as part of the Safe and Secure Water Program and secured $5.4M in funding for 17 different water and wastewater projects over those 10 Councils. I enjoyed the opportunity to assist those Councils to not only identify what the issues were but to acquire the funding to address those issues and determine how they can be rectified. I also feel that being part of the Town Water Risk Reduction Program is an achievement, as it means that I can work on something I feel strongly about, and be part of the process to improve the regulatory framework that can hopefully address some of the issues that regional water utilities face. I am also proud of the projects I’ve worked on during my career, especially seeing projects through from the concept stage all the way to commissioning. Seeing something that started as an idea and finishing as something that will help the community is always fulfilling. And finally, being chosen as the 2022 AWA NSW YWP of the year was a pretty proud moment recently.

Q: If you could go back five years, what advice would you give yourself?

Again, I have a few things I would choose:

“Bigger is not always better”

Coming from the regions, I always wanted to work in big cities, work with bigger water utilities and at bigger treatment plants but I’ve realised that I also enjoy working with smaller utilities and treatment plants as well.

“You will encounter a lot of obstacles but don’t let them slow you down”

Persistence really pays off so keep at it. I realised that the infrastructure in some regional communities can be poor and it is sometimes just accepted as normal or acceptable, but I think that regional communities deserve the same drinking water quality and reliability as their metropolitan counterparts. There have been a lot of boil water alerts declared across NSW listed on the NSW Health website over the past several years, and yet there is not enough attention brought to this. We take water for granted way too often. Some towns can have multiple boil water alerts within a year or two, which is seen as ‘acceptable’ or ‘the way it is’ in these areas, however, this would not be acceptable in a metropolitan area, which is a bit of a double standard.

“Find your why, your core purpose, your core beliefs”

If you’re working towards something greater than yourself then you’ll find fulfilment in your everyday work. I read a book by Simon Sinek, ‘Start with Why’, which looks at how a company with a clear purpose empowers its customers as well as its employees. If you can find your why (your purpose) and it matches that of your company, you can be inspired by what you can achieve and find fulfilment in your everyday work.

Regional YWP’s are making a difference in their local areas and the industry as a whole. If you are a YWP living, working, or studying in a regional area and would like to get involved or share your story, please find more information on our Young Water Professional page. NSW members can contact your YWP Committee Regional Representatives: 

Trevor Sultana | Trevor.Sultana@outlook.com 
Brendan Dagg | Brendan.Dagg@ghd.com