Spotlight Oct 2021: Agencies Innovate Ways to Connect With Youth and Cultivate Curiosity in Water Careers

  • by ACWA Staff
  • Oct 14, 2021

Participants in a Regional Water and Wastewater Internship Program led by the San Diego County Water Authority pose in a 2019 photograph. The previous year, all 12 interns were hired into water industry jobs either during the program or afterward.

A career in water seemed like a remote possibility for David Tapia after graduating from high school in 2015. He wasn’t alone.

“Public utilities — such as gas, electric, water —that wasn’t something you heard people talk about in high school,” Tapia said. “You think about being an engineer or a doctor. But then, you’ve got all these people who want to get into those careers, yet nobody’s getting any jobs.”

For Tapia, that changed while attending community college. Through word of mouth, he learned about a program focused on water utility work. The subject matter was a great fit with his gift for mathematics and led to a six-month internship at Rowland Water District in Los Angeles County. The district offered him a full-time position on the last day of his internship.

Tapia, 25, currently serves as a maintenance worker I at the district. He recently moved into a new home with his wife and infant daughter, a purchase made mostly possible by his salary at Rowland Water District, he said. 

“I kind of fell in love with how fascinating a career in water would be,” said Tapia, who hopes to progress into a supervisory role and eventually top off his career as an assistant general manager or general manager.

Tapia’s story represents one example of what water agencies seek to duplicate in California and nationwide. Before the drought, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the water profession counted the “Silver Tsunami” as among its top challenges – how to draw motivated young people and fill a vacuum of talent left behind by baby boomers retiring by the thousands?

As recently as last year, the San Diego region alone employed approximately 4,500 water and wastewater workers, with more than 1,400 of those workers expected to reach retirement age by 2024, according to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Rowland Water District is one of many ACWA member agencies with programs in place to attract young workers into the profession. This includes the internship program that gave Tapia his start, as well as a virtual Career Forum conducted in partnership with a local high school that attracted 60 people. In addition, the district has developed an online video library where visitors can virtually job shadow district employees, ranging from maintenance workers to water operators and managerial staff.

Three more examples of ACWA member agencies engaged in recruiting the next generation of workforce through local high schools and community colleges include the following.

San Diego County Water Authority

The Water Authority has been able to introduce newcomers to the vast opportunities in the San Diego regional water industry thanks in large part to its Regional Water and Wastewater Internship Program, a collaborative effort between the Water Authority and its regional water and education partners, according to Water Authority Director of Human Resources Ashley Kite. 

Regional interns are placed with partner agencies for four eight-week rotations through “mission critical” areas including water treatment, wastewater treatment, system operations and system maintenance. During the 2017-’18 program year, all 12 interns were hired either during the program or afterward. The Water Authority paused the program last year because of the pandemic, but it’s back this year with eight interns.

To attract intern applicants, the program employs a website, social media, outreach through local community colleges and partner agencies’ own employees through word-of-mouth within their communities.

“We’ve tried to shake all the trees to expand our reach across all talent pools and communities to invite people to see for themselves what water has to offer,” Kite said. “Water is just so unique. What we’re up against is people knowing about us, knowing what we do, that when we say ‘water,’ it encompasses so many things.”

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

The SFPUC offers a wide variety of pathways into the profession through several internship and apprenticeship programs. 

The SFPUC represents a great opportunity for young people who are not necessarily attracted by, or can afford, a four-year-college. The utility has 800 jobs that require certification, but not a degree. The SFPUC website lists three separate internships designed for high school students alone.

One innovative tactic also connects with high school students through their teachers, who SFPUC invites on externships that include tours of its facilities. The process had to go virtual during the past year, but is still working, said Ronnie Versher, Jr., Director of Community Benefits at SFPUC. Fourteen teachers went through the program in August.

“One of the cool things about the teacher externships is that (the teachers’) potential reach is 2,200 students. It’s one of the best ways to reach out and showcase what we can offer,” Versher said. 

Mojave Water Agency 

Imagine a high school academic decathlon devoted entirely to water. At Mojave Water Agency, the annual Innovators High Desert Water Summit bears a close resemblance. Mojave Water has hosted the event for five years, with sponsors providing scholarships that range from $1,000 to $3,000 as prizes for essays and demonstrations of problem solving. Teams can earn their school’s scholarship money, too.

The 2020 event attracted more than 270 middle and high school students and their teachers for a half-day program in Victorville. As with other youth programs, the pandemic forced a pause, but the agency is in the process of planning a summit for 2022. 

The summit has served as an inflection point for career-minded high school students, said Yvonne Cox, Mojave Water’s Director of Community Outreach and Cultural Relations. The hope is that some competitors continue on to college and return to their community as water professionals. A former water resources intern at the agency competed in a past summit, and a student who had attended an event in the past recently served as an engineering intern. 

Developing an app for saving water and designing a water efficient community down to the last detail are two of many examples of challenges from past summits, where teams have access to experts while thinking their way through problems.

“Nothing is impossible for them, so they come up with great solutions,” Cox said. “We try to make it a real-world problem, because they might come up with a solution we’ll actually have to use someday.”

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