No two days are the same in Sarah (Burmeister) Scanlan’s work week as she operates like a superhero, preventing bad things from happening.
Her job, though, doesn’t involve leaping from buildings or fighting villains.
A 2012 graduate of the environmental health program at UW Oshkosh, Scanlan, of Appleton, is employed as an environmental health sanitarian with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The role involves performing numerous unannounced inspections and providing training at various businesses, including restaurants, campgrounds, swimming pools and hotels/motels.
She has a field-based position and her “office” is physically in the field—at the businesses she monitors in Calumet and Kewaunee counties.
“I work on the preventative side . . . You never hear about someone who didn’t need a rabies shot; someone who didn’t get listeria due to inspection and training; or a campground with a septic system that was leaking. (Inspectors) are preventing bad things.”
Environmental health specialists/sanitarians administer environmental and health programs for public and private agencies and organizations in food protection and safety, water protection, air quality, noise industrial and land pollution, sewage disposal, hazardous and toxic substances, solid waste management, emergency management and institutional health. Scanlon, who began with DATCP in January, performs inspections focused on food safety, water safety and recreational facilities.
“Many of them (business owners) don’t know who I am yet,” she said of her relatively new role. “Some are immediately overwhelmed. Others are glad I’m there.”
At a restaurant, Scanlan is concerned with food safety. Are there date markings on product containers? Are foods being kept at the proper temperature? Are employees washing their hands when they need to?
“We’re there to train them. An outbreak isn’t good for them—it could put them out of business,” she said.
She strives to deliver any bad news—there may be a need for remedial action—but still be on good terms with people.
Scanlan said when she began classes at UW Oshkosh she did so with the intent of eventually becoming a doctor. Like many students, though, she changed her mind. She decided to pursue medical technology.
That plan would change, too. After shadowing someone in the profession, she realized there would be many repetitive tasks every day, likely while working in the lab of a hospital.
Scanlan recalled how she enjoyed a bacteriology course she had with UW Oshkosh professor Greg Kleinheinz. She said she sat down with him and explained how she didn’t think the med tech program was for her.
Environmental health was a new major at the time, and Scanlan said it sounded interesting and she decided to give it a try.
Kleinheinz said he recalled that Scanlan and two of her classmates switched from med tech to the environmental health degree path. One of the friends is working in quality control for Schreiber Foods in Green Bay and the other is working in Colorado.
Kleinheinz says there are about eight jobs for every one graduate of UW Oshkosh’s environmental health program, which is one of just 30 accredited programs in the U.S. The accreditation allows graduates to immediately take the RS (registered sanitarian) exam. Those in unaccredited programs may need to work two years before being eligible to take the exam.
Starting pay in the field is around $45,000 and increases to around $60,000 or more annually and includes good benefits. Most graduates go on to a county or state job or consulting, Kleinheinz said, adding that pay is higher in bigger cities.
“She (Scanlan) is a perfect example of a student who was exposed to a major she wasn’t aware of,” he added. “She’s kind of a role model we can point other students to.”
Scanlan said environmental health is great for biology majors who have no idea what they want to do with their degree.
Her first taste of environmental health occurred while she was a student, working the summer of 2010 in Vilas County in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, collecting water samples from wells and rented tourist rooming houses as part of a program organized by Kleinheinz.
Her first job out of college was with the Eau Claire Health Department, where she inspected retail food and restaurants, as well as administered its septic system program.
Scanlan then returned to the area, working for Winnebago County for 2.5 years and the City of Appleton for 16 months.
Her position with DATCP began in January 2017.
Scanlan said she knows a UW Oshkosh grad who worked for Brown County and now works in Las Vegas.
“It does not hurt to try these things when you are young,” she said, adding that places aren’t always looking for someone with vast experience.
“Don’t feel you’re not qualified,” she advised students in the program. “But you need to show those soft skills.”
Scanlan said she can teach someone how to do an inspection, but it’s the ability to deal with a difficult person or situation that puts someone’s resume at the top of the pile. She advises students to learn people-handling skills from every inspector they’re with, and a college course on advanced English for the sciences would be helpful.
“Every interview pretty much has the question: You did an inspection at a restaurant with ‘xyz’ violation. How do you make them understand how to fix it and calm them down?”
Scanlan said students shouldn’t expect to simply leave college with a degree and get a job.
“Try to get experience before you leave college,” she said, advising students to work on internships, networking and anything to gain experiences related to the degree.