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Spotlight: Nate Hickman

June 13, 2019 – Building a team that improves air quality in Texas

Nate Hickman, Grant Development Team Leader, Implementation Grants Section of the Air Quality Division.
Nate Hickman, Grant Development Team Leader, Implementation Grants Section of the Air Quality Division.

Cleaner school buses, increasing use of natural gas and alternative fuels, and upgrading or replacing high emissions on-road vehicles and non-road equipment, are just a few ways the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan takes action to reduce air pollution. Nate Hickman leads one of the TERP teams that works together to administer and award grants that make the air cleaner in Texas.

Hickman says, “more than 60 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions in some of our metropolitan areas are coming from mobile sources.” He further explains that TCEQ has the job of taking incentives and using them to get people to voluntarily upgrade or replace the older, high-emitting equipment and vehicles they operate with newer, lower-emitting models.

“Simply put, my job is to do whatever I can to make my team’s jobs easier and ensure that they succeed.” Hickman adds that, “success is not only the work output, it is the health and happiness of our employees as they work together to accomplish the state’s air quality goals.”

Hickman’s primary function as a team leader is to make sure his team has everything they need, from organization and direction to any information, data, and policy answers that will help them help the public take action to reduce air pollution.

“We work with grant programs that give people money to replace or retrofit their vehicles or equipment. These grants can range from four to five million dollars per program to upwards of 50 to 60 million dollars. When people receive these funds to replace or retrofit their vehicles or equipment, they are contributing to emissions reduction in the state and a healthier environment for all,” comments Hickman.

His other primary function revolves around policy. Hickman tracks and analyzes legislation relating to plans and policies to improve air quality in Texas.

Why is your job important?

“We are tackling a portion of air quality in Texas that can be tough to wrangle. Mobile sources of NOx [nitrogen oxide] emissions, for example, contribute to the formation of ozone and in the interest of a healthy Texas and meeting the Clean Air Act requirements, we work to mitigate the levels of ozone in key areas across the state.”

What skills are important for your job?

Hickman is quick to say that the training that helps him succeed and excel in his job includes honing his writing skills—especially technical writing skills—and being able to write in plain language. Hickman explains that his team communicates with diverse audiences such as legislators, management, and other people at the commission with all levels of expertise working on emissions reduction. At the same time, they present information to the public and explain technical material in a way they can understand.

“I think the ability to write well and accurately, and also in plain language, is a key skill that someone undertaking this job would want to build up. I would also add that another important skill is communication and the ability to work well with people, because you are working with folks all day, every day, and that makes this job real exciting,” explains Hickman.

Nate Hickman meets with his team to discuss grants and data for the TERP program.
Nate Hickman meets with his team to discuss grants and data for the TERP program.

What attracted you to this job?

Environmental policy and management were some of the things that Hickman found interesting about this line of work. He states, “I actually grew up in a family business that ran an environmental laboratory in east Texas where they tested water and wastewater for places around Texas. It was my first job and the hardest boss I ever had was my own mom,” he says laughing.

“We grew up with TNRCC [Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, predecessor agency to the TCEQ] and then the TCEQ, and in the back of our minds there was always the thought of the state coming to check out the lab. Luckily my mother and the teams kept it operating at the highest level of quality!”

Hickman added that he initially had no intention of taking an environmental career path and had actually moved to California to pursue a whole other career. He originally had plans to study astrophysics and explore the theories of space, time, the stars, and the like, but he learned very quickly that modern space exploration required more traveling through math books than the long nights behind a telescope that he’d hoped for. It was then that he got involved with some political groups on campus, started working with United Nations issues, and wrote some research papers exploring global coordination on environmental affairs. So, he shifted his focus and got a degree in International Affairs at the University of California San Diego before traveling back to Texas where he got a Masters in Public Administration from Texas A&M University.

He worked at the Texas Governor’s Office under Gov. Rick Perry for a couple of years, and it was there that he first encountered the TCEQ and had the pleasure of working with many of the executives and staff from the agency. Once Perry left office, Hickman felt that the place he wanted to work next was the TCEQ. He was impressed by the culture and hard work. The agency’s work dealt with the subject matter that most fascinated him and that he felt he could contribute to.

Who were your mentors?

“I feel like I’ve always had a mentor. I have been so inspired by the folks I have been lucky enough to work with, but it all started with my mom and dad. They have such a keen work ethic. They can have fun but have a tremendous sense of responsibility to get things done no matter what. I have never heard them complain once. I was certainly inspired by that. I knew from day one that I would try to live up to their example, wherever I worked.”

He is quick to recognize one of his past supervisors, Amanda Guthrie, who he says has a great ability to organize a vast amount of data, demands, and programs, and who inspired him every day. He also gives kudos to Steve Dayton, who he calls “the guy who helped create TERP.” He was inspired by Dayton’s determination and commitment. These leaders, according to Hickman, shaped the way he approaches and does his work today.

What one thing do you wish more people knew about the TCEQ?

The TCEQ is a fascinating public agency where a lot of very smart and intuitive Texans work hard to streamline regulatory processes, strengthen relationships with the public and regulated communities, and implement legislative initiatives to protect the welfare of our state and all its residents.

Hickman adds, “I think a lot of people already know this, but some may still be surprised by the levels of energy, enthusiasm, and accountability that the professionals I work with at this agency bring to the table every day, at every meeting, and on every unique project. I wish more people knew how exciting and challenging it is to work in the public sector. We are at the leading edge of technology and innovation. We help support and maintain the vibrant environment and economy of the state that, like the individuals and businesses we work with, we call home.”

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All photos TCEQ.