At 26, public works chief 'wicked smart'
In August, Will Hickman was hired as Haines Borough public works superintendent. At 26, he may be the youngest person ever to hold that position.
Hickman was born and raised here, graduating from Haines High School in 2009. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout, became the first in his family to attend college, and graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in biology.
Hickman returned to Haines after graduation to be close to family, and worked for several years for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counting fish at the weir on the Chilkoot River.
But he wanted a year-round, steady job. So he abandoned biology and, in August 2014, was hired as a mechanic-operator for public works. The superintendent job historically has gone to employees who worked decades in public works.
“There was a lot of turnover at all levels of the borough for a while,” Hickman said, referring to the hire of a new borough manager and public facilities director, among other positions. Although the turnover was difficult to navigate at times, he said working in public works is “pretty low-key.”
After two years, Hickman was promoted to superintendent after longtime public works employee and superintendent Ralph Borders retired.
Ryan spoke highly of Hickman as calm, confident and a “crazy talented” mechanic: “I think Ralph would have punched me if I didn’t hire him,” Ryan said.
Hickman said the transition between him and Borders was smooth, and Borders had a hand in training him. Borders still offers advice and signed up to be an emergency hire with the department, Hickman said.
Hickman manages three full-time mechanic-operators and one summer park maintenance employee.
When asked if it was difficult to manage older people than he, he said: “With the old guys, you have to earn their respect by working hard.”
Ryan said Hickman seems to be inclusive with his crew and comfortably talks through problems.
“We all work together pretty well,” Hickman said.
Hickman’s daily responsibilities as superintendent include maintaining dirt roads, water and sewer lines, parks, and all city equipment like fire trucks and police cars as well as cleaning ditches, making welding repairs at the Portage Cove Harbor and plowing snow in winter.
He said it’s sometimes difficult to be on call and take care of “floods in the middle of the night.” Plumbing was also a learned skill for Hickman, but he said quickly advancing technology has made the job easier.
Ryan considers it a bonus that Hickman knows everyone in town and doesn’t seem to have a lot of “personal vendettas” with locals.
“I think he’s doing a great job. I’m really happy,” Ryan said.
Hickman said he often takes his work home by fixing up old motorcycles and cars or welding with his dad in his spare time. One of his bigger projects included renovating a 1970s Volkswagen bus.
Hickman said he plans to stick around in the job for a while: “I think I owe it to them.”