SkillSpeak Series #4: Professor Alexander Heil

The following interview is a part of SkillSpeak, a series of short interviews with SUMA professors, where they share bits of wisdom and knowledge, advising on skills that are crucial for a successful career in sustainability. This week we have Alexander Heil who teaches Economics of Sustainability Management. The interview was conducted by Avantika Goswami, SUMANI President. An audio version of this interview can be found here.

Name: Alexander Heil

Academic Background: PhD in Transportation Economicsanalyzed commuter behavior to understand how people travel to work, determined the important decision-making variables and developed a series of quantitative models that would point out how changes in policy variables (such as the price of parking) affect modal choice

Current Professional Title: Chief Economist, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Adjunct Professor, Columbia University

What field within the sustainability realm do you work in?

Transportation economics – with a focus on the analysis of different policy alternatives for a multi-modal agency such as the PANYNJ in line with regional economic growth trends – in which sustainability is a critical element

What skills have you leveraged on so far, to expand your presence in your field of sustainability?

Despite the fact that I do have quantitative skills, they are not my most useful skills. It is very easy to get stuck in a role as a quantitative analyst or economist, running models and maybe writing reports; but you have to be able to translate and communicate that to the public / peers / other stakeholders. I find that translating economic trends and data into something that is digestible by others who are not as quantitatively inclined is a much greater skill. You do need to have an appreciation of data and analysis, because without that you cannot engage with others on the policy proposals that are being discussed. My focus is simply more on practical application – using media like podcasts, newsletters and short articles to get people engaged.

What are some of the most relevant skill-building opportunities offered by the SUMA program?

I think the program is great because it allows students to connect with their peers on areas and topics that they are interested in, as well as practitioners in the field such as myself; in that sense it has an outward-looking focus. It is important however on the other side that students do not forget that there is a quantitative / analytical rigor that one needs to apply to sustainability problems, so you need to get those basic quantitative skills lined up. The program brings out a bit of both aspects. I have found that the students are very talented and there is a nice synergy that has been created here. Additionally, during the time that students are here in New York City there is so much that happens on the sustainability front with very small firms (start-ups) that are developing new technology on one hand. The city of New York is also pushing towards sustainable practices and policies, it’s all over the board.

What skills would you advise a future SUMA graduate to develop in order to build credibility within your field of sustainability?

Understanding the economics underlying transportation, how does a transportation network operate, how are these decisions made on where to live / work / locate business and warehouses, what modes of transportation are to be used, what kind of (positive/negative) impacts do those modes have, etc. Having a good sense of these business models and the economic context in which they operate, are critical in particular for transportation.

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