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Sydney Water

  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Alexandra Northam

Alexandra Studied Environmental Science at University of Wollongong (UOW) and is now a Graduate at Sydney Water.

By constantly assessing how our company is performing from an environmental standpoint, we can turn that data into real-world recommendations that actually result in sounder business practices.

What does Sydney Water do and what are your areas of responsibility?

Sydney Water plays an essential role in supplying drinking water, wastewater, recycled water and some stormwater services to more than five million people across Sydney, the Illawarra and the Blue Mountains. Beyond considering the logistics of providing these services, we are constantly assessing the impact our work has on our broader local environment and the health of our waterways. This is where my role comes in, as part of the Environmental Performance Improvement team. We work closely with the external Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to ensure that our business activities are environmentally responsible.

My daily tasks include analysing environmental and asset data and liaising with the EPA, to find ways we can minimise any pollution or environmental degradation that occurs through our wastewater management. After identifying opportunities for improvement, I support my team in making these recommendations to the business. It’s essentially a two-part process; making sense of the data we have at our disposal and then strategically communicating this data to the company decision-makers, so they can support tangible changes to the way we do business.

How did you get to your current job position and for how long have you been doing it already?

I’ve always felt most at home when I’m fully immersed in nature. I grew up surfing with my siblings, spent my gap year travelling to remote parts of the Middle East, Asia and Europe and learned about marine biology from my school-teacher dad. This love of the natural world is how I first become fascinated by ecology, renewably energy and climate science. I studied a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Honours) at the University of Wollongong where I majored in Land Resources and completed a thesis on air quality modelling in my final year. Alongside university, I gained invaluable experience volunteering for a variety of local eco-advocacy groups and working as a part-time environmental monitoring officer.

In 2018, I commenced with Sydney Water through their Graduate Program. This has enabled me to observe multiple aspects of the organisation first-hand and gain practical experience in their business activities. My first annual placement involved conducting research in the drinking water and incident response areas of Sydney Water, while also assisting with the governance of projects that fell under the Science Research portfolio. In my second placement, I got an entirely different perspective of Sydney Water by working at Cronulla Wastewater Treatment Plant, where I tried my hand at the day-to-day operations of treating wastewater. My third and current placement is building on my experience yet again, as I consider how we can optimise our environmental performance as an organisation.

Suppose someone wants to do the same job as you do, would that be also possible with a different background?

I’d answer that with a qualified yes. While my tertiary background of environmental science has been a fantastic foundation for my career thus far, I have gained so many skills through my graduate program placements over the last 2.5 years with Sydney Water that have led to my current position within the Environmental Performance Improvement team. The first two years of my placement have equipped me with operational experience in wastewater treatment and practical insight into research and stakeholder management. My current job combines these two skillsets because I interpret research data to identify how Sydney Water can improve their operational practices. I think this shows that tertiary study is a foundation on which you can build practical experience.

What's the coolest thing about your job?

As someone who has always been passionate about the natural world, I love how my current role has a tangible and positive impact on our local environment. By constantly assessing how our company is performing from an environmental standpoint, we can turn that data into real-world recommendations that actually result in sounder business practices. It’s very satisfying to see how our research, strategy and stakeholder management work reduces the number and impact of pollution incidents.

What are the limitations of your job?

To perform well in my role, it’s essential to have excellent written communication skills. It’s not just a matter of analysing research data. It’s equally about turning that data into compelling recommendations and being able to convince multiple stakeholders that making changes to their current business practice is prudent and in the company’s (and community’s) best interest. This means being able to speak confidently to people from a range of backgrounds and feeling comfortable writing reports, formal emails, Board papers and technical instructions. These skills all come with time and practice, but it’s important to recognise that verbal and written communication is a non-negotiable part of the role.

3 pieces of advice for yourself when you were a student...

  • Networking doesn’t have to look like awkward cocktail parties! Volunteering for local advocacy groups, not-for-profits or smaller businesses is a fantastic way to meet people, contribute your skills to causes you care about and gain first-hand knowledge and skills. An added benefit is showing future employers that you’ve have been fully immersed in relevant fields, with real-world experience to offer them.
  • It’s tempting to get caught up in the treadmill of tertiary study and part-time work, but you will never regret making the most of all the social opportunities university can offer too. Don’t forget to have fun!
  • It seems counterintuitive, but you’ll absolutely perform better at your studies when you are also engaged in a life outside of the university. Balance is key; pursue hobbies that excite you, exercise regularly, eat well, spend time with friends and be nice to your mum!