A career turning point fueled the fire for an MPA

Aaron Lipski
Degree: Master of Public Administration
Hometown: Milwaukee
It’s a fact: He co-chaired the American Lung Association’s annual “Fight for Air Climb” fundraiser in Milwaukee this year. Like a lot of local firefighters, he has participated in this event for the last six years, completing the challenge of climbing 94 flights of stairs in the US Bank Center.

A fourth-generation firefighter, Aaron Lipski loves the profession he has practiced for 17 years with the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD).

But in any career, change will come. For Lipski it came in the form of a promotion that involved administrative and managerial duties that were new to him as he took charge of the division responsible for MFD’s fleet, facilities and supply purchasing.

Lipski, Deputy Chief of the Firefighting Division, suddenly had to tackle the tasks necessary to run a business, only his domain is in the public sector.

“Overnight I was put in charge of handling multimillion-dollar budgets,” he recalls. “I needed help just to be able to speak the language with comptrollers and administrators at the city.”

Using the resourcefulness found at the heart of firefighter training and the work ethic instilled by his family, Lipski began searching for the help that would allow him to thrive in his new role. He found it in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) joint degree program offered by the UWM College of Letters & Science and the Lubar School of Business.

“I went looking for such a degree program out of sheer necessity,” he says. “I’ve never had anything that I needed so immediately.”

He remembers sitting in a class taught by Associate Professor John Bohte and listening to the lesson on municipal budgets and finance. “Dr. Bohte was showing us how to do something that had been frustrating me that very day at work,” says Lipski. “I took all the handouts from class with me to work the following day.

“I’ve had this experience over and over again during the process of getting this degree,” he says. “It was uncanny.”

Relatively few UWM students finishing their bachelor’s degrees are aware of the MPA, says Bohte, but the timing is right for finding jobs in the field. Local governments are looking for talented people as baby boomers in the workforce retire.

“The majority of students coming into the program directly after finishing their undergraduate degrees have found good-paying jobs as budget/management analysts and assistant village managers throughout southeastern Wisconsin,” he says.

A degree of his own

Lipski was a child witness to his father and grandfather’s stream of profession-related injuries, so he at first rejected the idea of a fire-fighting career. And his elders did not push him.

Instead, Lipski was expected to go to college, and he initially enrolled at UWM after high school. But a casual visit to an information session at his father’s fire house sparked a change of heart.

“After that, it was like someone had turned on a light switch. I’ve been ‘all in’ ever since,” he says.

His parents, however, continued to encourage him to finish his bachelor’s degree in communications, which he did in 2001. The master’s degree, as Lipski views it, was his own professional rescue unit.

In addition to skills like accounting, procurement and union relations, Lipski learned the less obvious aspects of public administration – for example, handling the politics that frequently figure into public policy.

But he also discovered his own role. In preparing budget documents for the Milwaukee Common Council to consider, he says, it isn’t enough just to put the numbers in front of them.

“I’ve realized that the department fits into a bigger picture – one of a large collection of governmental agencies,” he says. “We have to make that work for us. Trust is such a huge factor in the process.”