Like many of WPI’s board members over the years, Mike Firlotte has experience in water and wastewater operations that goes back decades. After graduating high school in 1992, he was not certain about which direction to take his life next, so he got a job at his hometown pool as a lifeguard. There, he became intrigued by water treatment. This hint of fascination was the first step in a 25-year journey through nearly every possible facet of the industry. And since a long, quality college career is imperative for success in this world, that was exactly what Mike needed to have. Right?
Wrong. After seven years as a lifeguard, Mike completed a two-year Water Quality Technology and Engineering program at Okanagan University College in Kelowna, British Columbia. The timing was ideal because the early 2000s brought about many regulation changes that required certified operators. “I was really blessed to come into the field that way,” Mike reflects. In 2008, he jumped from life in operations to life in management. Learning how to direct and mentor others was a “whole new ballgame,” as Mike describes it. At this point, his outlook on water operations had evolved from fascinated to passionate.
Another significant turning point in his journey happened 15 years ago when he became an instructor. He specialized in areas of operations and treatment not covered by typical vendors in Canada. Instructing solidified a new passion: People. He especially appreciated teaching new operators who might have struggled getting through typical training programs. Mike still works as an instructor today, and he also serves the City of Whitehorse, Yukon, as the manager of Water and Waste. This combination of devotion and experience makes much more than a convincing resume — it has forged Mike into one of the most reputable leaders of the water and wastewater industry.
Mike soon realized that many operators in British Columbia had grown frustrated with the certification process. It was time to take his next step: “I am not going to complain when I can make change.” Eager to become an advocate, he joined the Environmental Operator Certification Board (EOCP). Mike worked his way up to chair of the program and, in 2019, attended his first WPI Conference in Savannah, Georgia. “I could feel the passion I have always had in a room full of others,” Mike says, and he remembers thinking, “This is fantastic!” And intimidating. Like Mike, the people of WPI had contributed plenty to their field, but they did so with the extensive background in education that Mike lacked. However, he knew that WPI would play a key role in progressing the industry, and he was eventually welcomed to join the board. Now, Mike feels his background is his greatest strength. It allows him a unique perspective for problem-solving. “I have built this from the ground up,” he states, “so I am drawing from a different toolbox.”
Mike’s history also makes him more open-minded to innovation, and he believes that WPI’s diversity is crucial during a time that requires change within the industry. “I hate the excuse, We have done it this way for 30 years,” he says. “I have to think about what happens in five years, or 10 years.” Having entered the industry as a young adult, part of his mission is figuring out how to make this type of work appeal to today’s younger generation. On a more personal note, Mike hopes he can be an example for those who do not have the “necessary” resources that most people have. For those who have the enthusiasm and curiosity but lack the confidence because they feel they are too uneducated or too lost. “I barely made it through high school and here I am today,” he says. “I am the voice of change.” Mike’s various roles, workplaces and missions all exemplify why experience can be the greatest education of all. “Maybe you don’t have an engineering degree, but you can make a humongous change,” he validates. “You just have to have passion.” Passion cannot be taught the way that content can, but it can be demonstrated. There is no doubt that Mike’s journey through this industry will contribute immeasurably to its success.