UOW Sutherland graduate Aaron Flett reflects on how a pursuit of higher education later in life not only propelled his career but also inspired his own family's academic dreams.
At 17 and disillusioned with education, Aaron Flett finished school and began a plumbing career.
“I didn’t really have a career plan except to become a plumber like my dad,” he says.
“My father was killed in a hit-run accident when I was just a baby, and I guess it was my way of feeling closer to the man I’d never known.”
Now 43, Aaron looks back on that decision as a heart-felt stepping stone that would eventually lead to an exciting and rewarding career, which has been turbo charged by a Master of Management degree at the University of Wollongong’s Sutherland campus.
Aaron initially started with mainly maintenance plumbing in Sydney before moving on to fitting and machine work for five years, focusing on designing, manufacturing, and re-building heavy industrial machines.
“I was manufacturing parts for excavators when a fitting and machinist job came up at ANSTO (Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) at Lucas Heights,’’ Aaron recalls.
“I didn’t have much of an idea of what happened there, so I researched it and thought what they did was really interesting, especially in in the field of nuclear medicine, so I applied and got the job,” he says.
His first role in 2007 was designing and manufacturing critical equipment to make nuclear medicine, and scientific instruments in the nuclear science and technology facilities. As well as providing therapeutic and medical products on a global scale, ANSTO’s research focus covers health, environment and nuclear technologies.
“ANSTO’s specialist techniques and expertise are being used to create a more sustainable environment and they address climate change challenges,” Aaron says.
It also contributes to improved water sustainability, cleaner air quality and improved food provenance.
“Once I got to ANSTO, I saw a range of career opportunities – it’s an organisation where if you work hard and put your hand up for new opportunities, you get a lot of support,” Aaron says.
“I wasn’t very good at science at school but when you are surrounded by brilliant minds every day, science becomes relatable, so you just soak it in.”
Aaron soon began moving up the ranks. Over time, his roles moved from maintenance and manufacturing to managerial positions, which required increasing levels of responsibility.
In 2009, Aaron was in line for a senior position in one of the nuclear medicine facilities to manage a new team, but he did not have the required Master of Management degree.
“Although I had the related experience, there were certain managerial skills I needed to learn,” he says.
“For that reason, I required a Master in Management degree so my boss offered to support me financially through the course if I succeeded in getting the degree.
“I was incredibly grateful, but I had huge reservations about my ability to undertake tertiary study after my dismal experiences at school.
“Also, by that stage I had a family of three kids under six who depended on me, so the fear of failing and having to repay the course fee was daunting at first,” he says.
Those fears proved unfounded.
“The Sutherland campus was only five minutes from my home, which was a godsend because it allowed time to comfortably juggle work, family and study,” says Aaron.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions ever because not only did I get the new job, I thrived on a totally new and engaging learning experience.
“All of my lecturers were great, and the course work was spot on with assignments that aligned with what I was doing at work.
“One of my favourite subjects was positive psychology about how to get the best out of people. I later used a lot of those techniques to build strong teams.”
On a personal level, Aaron found the experience life-changing.
“For the first time in my life I enjoyed academic learning, so much so that those negative labels from my school days of being lazy and not trying just melted away.”
Since the course, Aaron has climbed further up the rungs and is now ANSTO’s Senior Manager of Nuclear Assurance, which is a strategic role that ensures the organisation complies with all safety regulations set by its regulator.
Looking back on his university experience, Aaron says a treasured moment was the graduation ceremony in 2012.
“I was the first person in my family to go to university, so my entire family were there, even my boss,” Aaron says.
“My kids saw me in my gown and mortarboard, but they were too young to attend the ceremony.”
Aaron's, eldest child, now 18, is studying Medical and Health Science at UOW, and he hopes he has inspired her career path.