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UMGC Alumni Association Keeping it clean: Bill Burris '14 talks environmental management in the USAF


Watch the video on Candid Career.

Bill Burris ‘14 could describe his accomplishments as environmental program manager with the U.S. Air Force in many ways, but he chooses a humble approach: “In some senses, I’m a janitor,” he says, with a smile.

Regardless of how he depicts himself, Burris plays an important role in keeping U.S. Air Force installations clean. As part of the installation support team at the U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Center in Columbia, Md., he helps prevent and restore environmental contamination caused by aviation fuel, lubricants, oils, solvents and other petroleum products. “These are the sources of contamination that impact the soil and the groundwater,” Burris explains. 

Assessing the situation
When Burris and his team suspect there is contamination at an installation, the first order of business is to conduct a screening to evaluate the condition of a given area. “There’s a formal process for how investigations are done, and this process is managed under what we call the National Contingency Plan,” he says.

This procedure was put in place decades ago by the Environmental Protection Agency. “We follow this protocol across the federal government for how we actually find, identify, investigate and address cleanup and remediate environmental contamination,” says Burris. 

Burris’s team is responsible for facilitating these environmental inquiries, including hiring contractor teams to conduct the investigations and interfacing between the contractors and the base or installation to ensure that their missions are not disrupted. “We also deal with the regulators in terms of reporting the [investigation’s] results, our plans and how we need to proceed,” he adds.  

A proactive approach
Although an important part of Burris’s role is cleaning up environmental messes, the most fulfilling part of his job is working hard to avoid these accidents on the front end. 

“Environmental management — at least the way I define it — is preventing messes from occurring in the first place,” he says. When this is done well, it can mean great savings to the government and, in turn, taxpayers. “The more we spend on upfront management saves us much more on the tail end in cleaning up,” Burris asserts.

Mission critical: strong communication skills
In Burris’s line of work, misunderstanding can spell disaster. That’s why communication is the most important skill his team members can have when conducting an environmental investigation. 

“If [we’re] going to try to coordinate getting a drill rig to collect soil and water samples out on the airfield, I need somebody who can do a good job in talking to airfield operations and security and all the other missions that are out there coordinating the effort so we don’t cause an impact to the mission at the base,” he says. 

Communicating clearly during environmental briefings with colleagues is also critical. “You have folks like myself at a more senior level who are trying to communicate these issues to the actual leadership at the installation, informing the installation leadership what the challenges are, what it is that the environmental restoration program is doing and how it’s going to impact their overall operations and how they interact with the public,” Burris says. 

That’s why when Burris is hiring for his own team, he looks for candidates who can communicate well across all levels and job functions. He’s not as concerned about the nuts and bolts of the work, which contractors can learn during training. 

“If I’m looking for somebody to come in and support the program, there’s a little less emphasis on technical knowledge and more emphasis on communication skills, especially with the operations people at the installation,” notes Burris. 

Landing a government job
In his role, Burris is sometimes asked for advice on how to become an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense or other government agencies. “The easiest way to get an entry-level job right now is through what they call the Pathways Program,” he says. 

This program is designed to help students and recent graduates find federal career opportunities. These positions can be found on by searching for internship or recent graduate jobs. 

When applying for a job, Burris recommends reading the job description very carefully to gain a thorough understanding of the duties and the language used to describe them. “That will give you a sense of what keywords you want to use to input into your actual application or your resume when you’re applying for that particular position,” he advises.

Those who are serious about launching a federal career should go one step farther. “They need to go through the effort of building a federal resume within USAJOBS and setting up a search agent that will report to them every day on the keywork searches they’ve established,” Burris says.

This is important because the federal resume on USAJOBS also serves as a job application. “It has to be quite thorough and extensive,” he notes. That’s because hiring managers don’t just glance at it quickly to determine whether or not you’re worthy of an interview. They read it very carefully to gain insight into your past experience and skill set to determine if you’re the right candidate for the job.

When Burris is the one doing the assessment, you can be sure he’s looking for someone who’s passionate about maintaining the integrity of the environment and the mission—and has the communication skills to back it up.