An Award-Winning Young Professional Has Advice for Advancing in Water Careers

Kristi Steiner, WEF’s 2020 Outstanding Young Water Environment Professional, has prospered from industry involvement and encourages others to do likewise.

An Award-Winning Young Professional Has Advice for Advancing in Water Careers

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Kristi Steiner first took an interest in water while in middle school. Today she is an associate project manager with the Jacobs engineering consultancy, specializing in water projects.

Steiner, winner of the 2020 Outstanding Young Water Environment Professional Award from the Water Environment Federation, has been active in the organization for several years. The award recognizes her contributions to WEF and to the wastewater collection and treatment industry.

Steiner’s career has thrived in part through involvement with industry associations. She serves on the WEF Students and Young Professionals Committee and has helped plan several Young Professional Summits hosted jointly by WEF and the AWWA.

Steiner serves on the board of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association and is a past chair of its Students and Young Professionals committee. She represents the PNCWA in the WEF House of Delegates.

On the career side, Steiner earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University and a master’s in that field from Virginia Tech. She has held several positions with engineering firms and worked for a few years with Clean Water Services in Oregon before taking her current position.

Steiner talked about her career, the importance of industry involvement, and the need for more young water professionals in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

How did you get involved in WEF and its young professionals organization?

Steiner: I got involved with WEF in 2012-13 when I was at Virginia Tech. John Fletcher of Duke’s Root Control became my instant mentor and introduced me to his connections. He kept introducing me to people and talking me through how to network, and he got me involved with WEF. I joined the Students and Young Professionals Committee and have been involved in the Young Professionals Summit since 2014. It’s a great way to build friendships. People I have met through WEF have become my friends all over the country.

How would you describe the Young Professionals Summit?

Steiner: Every year WEF and AWWA alternate who leads the summit. It’s a one day summit focused on developing and connecting young professionals in our industry from all over the U.S. and Canada.  It is always attached to the Utility Management Conference. Last year I was the programming committee chair. This year I’m vice chair of the summit. Next year I’ll be chair of the summit, and then I will age out. I have seen the summit transform over the years.

In what way has the summit transformed?

Steiner: When I started it was very much conference style, where people give talks and you have breakout sessions. Over the years it has transformed to where there is more interaction and more opportunity to network. You meet enthusiastic young professionals and learn from them, as well as from the speakers. Because it’s attached to the Utility Management Conference, you get exposure to utility leaders. Often, the speakers and participants from that conference come over to our summit, so we get a variety of perspectives.

What is the composition of the summit attendees?

Steiner: We had 202 people at last year’s summit in February in Anaheim. We get lots of engineers. A handful of operators attend. We get marketing people and some scientists, such as lab technicians. It’s a healthy mix.

What would you say to someone about the benefits of getting involved in the young professionals group?

Steiner: When you start your job, you get a lot of training in the tools you need, the hard technical training. The Young Professionals Summit offers a lot soft-skills development: people interaction, communication and presentation skills, tying data together and communicating it to your friends and people in the community who might not have a technical base or vocabulary. Those practical skills help you grow in your career.

What do you feel was responsible for your winning the young professionals award?

Steiner: What may have tipped the scales was how the summit went last year when I led the programming committee. We challenged a lot of conventions, and I had great support from Megan Livak, the young professionals manager for WEF. Instead of traditional presentations and breakouts, we did a full day on communication. It included a session on connecting with your purpose led by consultant Erin Mosely and past WEF President Tom Kunetz. They explained how once you understand your own purpose, you can recognize other people’s purpose and use that to guide your conversations, the way you manage projects, and the way you manage people.

What were some of the highlights of the summit program?

Steiner: Dianna Crilley from U.S. Geological Survey talked about communicating high-level data to the broad public base. Rogue Water, a communications firm, did a really fun bit on general water communications through storytelling. They used slides with only graphics and music, a very unusual way to get through to people. They broke it down to how the brain is receptive to different situations and what part of the brain is working when you’re doing different things. They put it all to current music, brought in current events, and tied it all together to make it relevant to young professionals.

What opportunities were provided for networking?

Steiner: On the Sunday before the summit we do a service project. Last year we did a beach cleanup, and then we toured the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System in Anaheim, California. On Monday we did a half-day leadership workshop with lunch and a lot of time to network together. Every night there are networking happy hours.

What do you see that young professionals need to help get them energized?

Steiner: The young professionals I know are super energized. I feel great about moving on and doing different things, because there are so many good people stepping up to take over roles. They want to be involved and they want to be leaders. I graduated from the WEF Water Leadership Institute in 2019, and I sat on the steering committee for it this year. The number of applications we get from young aspiring engineers, scientists and operators is really nice to see. The diversity is growing.

What will it take to attract more young people to the water sector?

Steiner: We need to do a better job of outreach. We need to be not just in high schools but in elementary and middle schools, because that’s when kids’ brains really start to think about what they’re interested in, whether they know it or not. I decided I wanted to be in water during middle school, because my dad took me with him to a job site where a civil engineer was there and they were drilling a well. I talked to the engineer, and I thought it was so cool. It was the first time my brain put together how important and valuable water was. It directed how I chose my classes in high school and college.

Reaching out and making water fun for middle and elementary school kids is important. The other side of that is educating the parents, so they can have these conversations with their children. So it’s not just an engineer who comes into a classroom and does some fun experiments. They get home and hear from their parents and grandparents how important water is, and how they shouldn’t be wasting it, and all the opportunities that come with it.

Have you done any outreach yourself?

Steiner: Before COVID-19 hit, the PNCWA Young Professionals Committee was planning a Waterpalooza with one of the schools. We were going to take over their outside area for a day, set up a series of science activities, and have a little day fair about water. We did that a couple of years ago in Boise, Idaho.

What about reaching out to older students?

Steiner: In 2019 the PNCWA implemented the Introducing Future Leaders of Water program, reaching out to college students, letting them come to our conference, and having programs to teach them about all the opportunities for them in water. One thing we learned from that inaugural class was that we need to get them on board sooner, not just for the one-day conference. That way, by the time they hit the conference, they’re more ready to learn from the professionals they meet. Then afterward, we can follow up and ask: What are you interested in? What inspires you? How can we help you get connected with people?

Where do you see yourself in the years ahead?

Steiner: I would like to continue down the project management track. I love working with clients. One reason I came back to the consulting side was to work with utilities, help them solve their problems, and be part of the bigger solution. I also want to get more into people management and focus on making sure younger people coming up have connections to their leaders. I’d like to be a bridge between them, making sure they are getting technical, professional and personal growth through their workplaces. Ultimately, I would like to be in a position where I can manage people and help them get to where they want to go.

What advice would you give to young professionals on how to get involved in the industry?

Steiner: A lot of people see it as a daunting step to take. They don’t know what to do first or how to find a place to get involved. But it’s about reaching out to one person you know and asking for help to get connected. 

What about reaching out to a group such as a WEF Member Association?

Steiner: I started in the Chesapeake Water Environment Association, and they were amazing. It’s just a matter of reaching out – getting people to take that first step, have faith in themselves, and believe what they have to contribute is going to be meaningful.   


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