A Regional Approach to Recruiting a New Generation of Water Professionals

The BAYWORK collaborative in the San Francisco area reaches out to attract new blood to the profession while helping existing operators sustain and expand their skills.

A Regional Approach to Recruiting a New Generation of Water Professionals

Ingrid Bella

We all know it: The industry needs bright, young operators to replace those retiring. Approaches to recruitment are many: internships, apprenticeships, military veteran outreach, job fairs and more.

BAYWORK, in the San Francisco area, is taking a regional collaboration approach to workforce development. Its name is short for the Bay Area Water/Wastewater Workforce Development Collaborative, created in 2009 and now with 34 utility signatories. It’s available to all Bay Area water and wastewater utilities.

BAYWORK rests on the principle that operationally reliable utilities depend on adequate staff with sufficient preparation in mission-critical roles. Its functions include creating a unified voice among agencies for workforce development plans in the region, deploying programs and strategies to support the building of high-performance workforces, and setting up cost-effective programs to make sure utilities have enough qualified people to meet their responsibilities to customers, communities, and the environment.

The organization also strives to build relationships with partners like educational institutions, the Department of Labor, and workforce development boards. Ingrid Bella, chair of BAYWORK and supervising program administrator for business and customer services with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, talked about BAYWORK, its aims, and its accomplishments in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What circumstances led to the formation of BAYWORK?

Bella: In meetings of utility operating managers, the issue of people retiring and taking with them 20-plus years’ experience was always in the discussions. That was the catalyst for an American Water Works Association study to look at workforce reliability.

TPO: What did that investigation reveal?

Bella: We found that the water industry was like other industries in feeling the pressure of a major workforce that we will have to replace and not knowing whether we had a pool of new people ready to come in. We also saw that the schools weren’t getting kids interested in the types of math and science they need to enter our fields. In addition, we were behind the eight ball in terms of what other industries have done. The health care, oil industries and others had partnered with education organizations to get the word out about the great careers they have, and we had not done that for water.

TPO: What actions were taken based on the findings?

Bella: We set out to create a road map of what we needed to do to start filling the gap and catching up. People don’t realize the great jobs behind the faucet or the flush of a toilet. It’s all taken for granted. We need a new workforce to get excited about the great jobs we have.

TPO: What did the data show about the severity of the retirement wave in your region?

Bella: At a given utility, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent or more of the workforce may be eligible to retire. Essentially anyone 55 or over could walk out the door, based on our pension programs. That would be a huge cut since many of these are people with higher certifications. One of our BAYWORK executive committee members reported that 38 percent of Grade IV and Grade V operators in California are over 56 years old.

TPO: What are the main focus areas of BAYWORK at present?

Bella: We’re looking to the future of the workforce through outreach and education. At the same time, we can’t forget about the workforce we currently have. So we are also investing in staff preparedness. We have a committee that works on ways to do knowledge sharing among people already in the water industry. 

TPO: What kinds of activities come under the heading of staff preparedness?

Bella: One of our most popular programs is the Workshop on Wheels, where we load 50 or so people from different agencies on a bus and visit five or six facilities where the staff members share new technologies they’re implementing. We also have an annual Training Buffet where guest speakers present on new technology, leadership skills and other topics. This is training that’s free, and that’s a big plus. Many utilities can’t send their operators to the large conferences because of all the travel costs. We offer regional programs where they can get their contact hours and network with others.

TPO: What is being done toward raising awareness of water careers and attracting new people to the water professions?

Bella: About four years ago, West Valley College, a local community college, received a $6 million state grant to build water career pathways based on the mission-critical jobs BAYWORK had identified. We’ve worked with them on efforts to get students into community college water resource programs. We’ve also worked together on printing collateral in the form of brochures and posters that we can take to classroom presentations and career fairs.

TPO: How do you structure your career fairs?

Bella: They’re divided into two parts. We do a career exploration fair for students in the morning. The career pathways grant funds buses to bring students to the career fairs. Tables are staffed with water and wastewater operators and people in the other mission-critical jobs. We’re really trying to get the word out about skilled trade positions, like electricians, instrument technicians and plant maintenance personnel. In the afternoon, we hold our job-seeker fair, which is open to the public.

TPO: What other kinds of activities have been offered for students?

Bella: We recently did a regional Water Challenge through the careers pathways grant where we worked with teachers on water-related curriculum and students created projects to win scholarship money. We had the closing in April at Levi’s Stadium. We had a table there and talked about our careers, and then the students found out who won the scholarships.

TPO: Is it a challenge competing against other careers that tend to have higher profiles?

Bella: Here in Silicon Valley, we compete with the Googles and the Apples, so we have the challenge of raising the visibility of the water industry. We’re opening students’ eyes that, yes, there is a lot of excitement in our industry.

TPO: How exactly do you make the case?

Bella: It’s about letting them know that we have great jobs that are challenging and offer competitive salaries and benefit packages. It’s also a place where they can help restore our infrastructure and use new technology to deliver clean and safe water for our communities. It’s a good industry to be in because people want to help. That’s especially true for members of a new generation who are committed to protecting the environment and see ours as a green business that is going to help protect their futures.

TPO: Do you also undertake outreach to educators?

Bella: Under the grant, we recently partnered with a nonprofit organization called Ignited that works with teachers to get them externships with companies. We hosted groups of teachers in February and April to spend a week with us and go to different tours and presentations. At the Santa Clara Valley Water District, we gave presentations on groundwater and recycled water. We took them on tours of our treatment plants, our advanced water purification center, a reservoir and a dam being reconstructed. They left energized to talk about water and bring lesson plans into their classes related to what they learned.

TPO: How would you characterize the progress BAYWORK has made since inception?

Bella: Metrics are always a challenge. We used to do simple metrics such as how many schools we visited in a year and how much collateral we distributed. From that it’s hard to see whether we’re having the impact we want. We hope we’re having impact in the number of students enrolled water resource management programs. We have seen an increase in those areas recently. At Santa Clara Valley, we partnered with a local community college to offer a year-round, part-time internship to their water resources management students. We accepted two students at each of our four plants who are working 10 to 20 hours a week. Another way we know we’ve been moving the needle at our district is in how many interns we have hired from a structured summer internship program we implemented through our involvement with BAYWORK. In the past five years, we have hired at least 15 of those students as regular employees.

TPO: Why is it important for utilities to address these issues jointly?

Bella: By pooling our efforts, we get a better product because we gain more ideas and more input and we get to leverage resources so that we accomplish more than we could alone. There is value in looking at things from the global perspective of the water industry.

TPO: What advice would you give to utilities in other regions that would like to form a collaborative like BAYWORK?

Bella: They should start slow like we did, maybe with members of a couple of organizations who have seen each other at professional meetings. They can say, “Let’s have some coffee and lunch and talk about the most important things we could do for our region.” On our website (www.baywork.org) we have a ton of resources and ideas they can choose from. One principle of BAYWORK is that we’re an open forum. Everything on our website is pretty much capable of being replicated, and we encourage that. We share our information nationally and internationally.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.