Here's a Network for Grooming Young People for Careers in the Water Professions

It’s no secret that the operator workforce is aging. Now’s the time to groom a new generation. Water Environment Federation’s Students and Young Professionals Committee is a great resource.

“The power of youth is the common wealth for the entire world. The faces of young people are the faces of our past, our present and our future. No segment in the society can match with the power, idealism, enthusiasm and courage of the young people.”

Kailash Satyarthi

Those words from Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, are worth remembering as the water industry faces a wave of retirements and a less-than-full pipeline of replacements.

The industry’s future depends on an infusion of young talent. That means not just men and women coming up through high school and college but others who qualify as young: military veterans transitioning to civilian life, people unhappy with their jobs and seeking alternate careers, ex-inmates who received operations training and possibly licenses in one of many excellent prison-based programs.

Young people need to be introduced to the careers; brought on board through internships, apprenticeships, and operator-in-training programs; and then, perhaps most important of all, nurtured and mentored. One good place where that can occur is the Water Environment Federation’s Students and Young Professionals Committee, or SYPC.

Wider horizons

Many treatment agencies do a great job of training and mentoring new people and encouraging them to continue their education and reach higher licensing levels. But in the context of a job, there can be an element of “nose to the grindstone” — a close focus on the day to day at the expense of seeing the career and its possibilities more broadly.

Events like state association conferences and short schools are great for learning and networking, but again they tend to focus on nitty-gritty issues. Through SYPC, on the other hand, young professionals can meet peers from around the entire country and the world. It spreads a full banquet table of opportunities to explore.

The SYPC includes not just the young participants, but also academics and established water-quality professionals. Regular programs are held at WEFTEC and throughout the year, providing venues for professional development and leadership.

Members can take part in community service projects in the WEFTEC host cities of Chicago and New Orleans. Since 2008, the WEF Community Service Project has created five rain gardens, six bioswales and an outdoor classroom.

The WEF Student Design Competition gives students real-world experience to prepare them for careers in water and wastewater engineering and science. Teams of entrants prepare and present a design that helps resolve real-world water-quality issue. Other offerings include:

Student Chapters that promote interest in the water and wastewater industry and provide an avenue for members to exchange information and ideas.

The WEF/AWWA Young Professionals Summit, a joint leadership conference held with the Utility Management Conference and attended by young professionals from across North America.

YP Connections, a forum for young people to share information and experiences around professional development and leadership.

The $25,000 Canham Graduate Studies Scholarship and the annual Outstanding Young Water Environment Professional Award.

A testimonial

In a video on the SYPC webpage, Holly Falconer pinpoints the benefits of the group. “For networking, I think the people we have in WEF and in our member associations are incredible assets and there are incredible friendships to be developed through that,” says Falconer, Environmental Division manager in Boise, Idaho.

“But also, what we all work on individually tends to become pretty specific. Being exposed to the variety of things that are happening around the country and the world is amazing and opens up those opportunities for the future. The friendships I have gained from WEF and the experience in leadership that I’ve had, I wouldn’t change for anything.”

So, what’s the main message? Mentor your new people. Send them to training sessions and conferences. But also encourage them to join SYPC, and support them with a budget and time away for events. It will pay dividends in more energized, higher-skilled professionals — in young people with “power, idealism, enthusiasm and courage” on your team.


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