Career profile: Sue Brown, PIEMA

Published on: 23 May 2019

Sue Brown

After a long gap in her environmental career, Sue Brown is keen to return, and her daughter applying to study a similar subject has only increased her motivation.

What’s your current employment?
I have been out of the field for many years, supporting students with learning difficulties to gain their qualifications in STEM subjects. I currently work at a further education college.

What was your most recent environmental role?
Regional waste minimisation and producer responsibility officer for the Anglian region of the Environment Agency.

How did your career start and develop?
I applied for the role of research assistant at the Polytechnic of North London, researching urban run-off pollution. I started off monitoring pollution from ‘dilute and disperse’ landfills, then moved to waste regulation, licensing and enforcing waste-management sites. My most recent job in the field involved motivating industry to minimise the production of waste and implementing the then new producer responsibility regulations for packaging. I was on the national group that planned this, and had to work with area colleagues to roll it out across the region.

What put your career on hold? 
After having twins, we moved to the North Norfolk coast and, to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re not busy making career plans.

Why did you become an environment and sustainability professional?
Growing up on the Suffolk coast next to a nuclear power station got me thinking about man’s influence on the environment at an early age. I studied environmental biology, then took a master’s degree in pollution and environment control. There were only two courses like this at the time. The careers adviser warned me that there would never be any environmental jobs, and said I should join the army.

Why do you want to return to this sector?
Touring university environment faculties for my daughter’s UCAS application has reawakened my passion.
She wants to study the environment, and on the open days, I have been more excited than her. I almost had to tape my mouth shut touring the UEA School of Environmental Science. Inside I was screaming: I want to do this again!

What are the practical and emotional challenges of returning to the sector? 
If you live on the Norfolk coast and draw a 30-mile radius, most of it is the Wash, but I don’t want to work offshore. Travel times are slow here, and dangerous in the winter. Unsurprisingly, industry does not flock here. It was not the original plan to shelve my career, but have I got enough grit to see returning through? Apart from location, what’s holding me back is knowing where to start, whether I am too old, whether I should be retraining, and if 
I know enough. 

What do you think employers are looking for?
Working in education, my soft skills are pretty good, but what technical skills are required? Do I develop what I know, or go for an emerging market?

Are environmental returners a big group or are you alone in this goal?
I only ever seem to have had two of my ‘big three’ of career, family and leisure time on the go. That’s fine, but I need to juggle the balls now. As returners, are we an untapped resource, or would a newly qualified graduate pip us to the post every time. Is there enough room for both?

When was your most recent development event?
I borrowed the idea of student work experience and worked for the environmental manager at the college for three days. My skills came flooding back, and I improved my knowledge of energy efficiency in buildings and transport plans. I read key documents and have studied climate change and fracking online. Over the years, I’ve completed an environmental management course and a women returners to science course with the Open University in conjunction with WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering. I am gaining my Microsoft Office qualifications, and I have practitioner status now too. 

Where do you see the profession going?
I need some assistance on this, so I can plan where best to focus my training. It appears that corporate social responsibility is expanding and climate change mitigation is crucial.

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?
Back working in the environmental sector, even if it is part-time and mixed with my other roles.

What advice would you give to someone entering the profession?
Understand and love the wildlife around you, so the environment is not just a concept. If your company is reorganising, look out for opportunities. My big break came when the Environment Agency was set up and new regional roles were required.

How do you use the IEMA Skills Map?
This is work in progress – do I aim for the hole or the rim?

What motivates you?
Seeing the beauty of Holme Dunes national nature reserve, and then the damage from storm surges that will be more frequent as our climate warms. I want to be part of halting this.

Personal motto?
If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it.

Greatest risk you have ever taken?
Owing to my limited Spanish, being in a canoe at the top of the Iguazu Falls in Argentina, held from going over the edge only by a rope tied between two rocks.

If you could go back into history, who would you like to meet?
Being inspired by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s epic voyage, meeting him would be a must.