Regeneration, Diversity and Inclusion Highlight WEFTEC Opening General Session

The 92nd WEFTEC Conference opened in Chicago Sept. 23 with strong messages on adopting a regeneration mindset and embracing diversity as a key to developing and sustaining a quality water industry workforce.

WEFTEC president Thomas Kunetz, P.E., began the Opening General Session with a message about leadership through vision. "For vision to become reality,” he says, "there must be a known destination, plus the ambition to get there . . . WEF members are in the midst of another period of transition, facing challenges that our predecessors did not have, like climate change, aging infrastructure and an aging workforce.”

Toward renewal

Later, Kunetz cited a need to move away from a disposable society and become more cyclical, and new WEF executive director Walter Marlowe, P.S., CAE, introduced a ReNEW (Nutrients, Energy and Water) program, an initiative to collect data from utilities on resource recovery and thereby set goals and measure progress.

Kunetz announced the WEF is a major sponsor of a new documentary, Brave Blue World, about the positive work the water sector is doing to achieve a vision for the future. The documentary will be released nationwide in November.

A diverse workforce

As a prelude to stressing the need for diversity and inclusion in the water sector, Kunetz observes that the world is transitioning from an industrial to an entrepreneurial economy. “More and more, individuals are having to rely on their own resourcefulness to earn a living,” he says. “The water sector workforce needs to be composed of people who are self-learners, creative, resourceful, able to adapt to constant change.”

In addition to the right education, the water workforce of today should also be a reflection of the community it serves. Right now it is not. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, the water sector workforce is two-thirds male and 85% white.

“We in the water sector are standing on the threshold of a golden opportunity. We need talented, energetic and adaptable young people with fresh perspectives to fill the ranks of our workforce. And there is a diverse group of talented individuals available to fill those roles, to bring their perspectives, which will make the water workforce more creative and more resourceful. The trick is to let them know that we exist, that we have great jobs waiting for them.”

Accordingly, WEF has established the InFlow program (Introducing Future Leaders to Opportunities in Water). As part of that WEF, along with corporate sponsors, has issued InFlow full scholarships to 41 students.

In keeping with the diversity message, keynote speaker Dr. Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California San Diego, spoke about how the languages we speak shape the ways we think.

She concluded with three ways to improve communication:

• Listen. The Dalai Lama says, “When we talk we are only repeating things we already know. When we listen we have a chance to actually learn something new.” Or, in the words of former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge: “No one has ever listened himself out of a job.”

• Embrace miscommunication, as it presents an opportunity to clarify one’s own thinking: “Most confusion starts before we speak.”

• Start with common goals and points of agreement: “Connect with what your listeners already know.”

The session also included a message from Eileen O’Neill, who served six years as WEF executive director and 28 years with the organization. Her successor Marlowe was formerly executive director of the American Association of Pharmaceutical scientists and a former director at the American Society of Civil Engineers.

O’Neill thanked her WEF colleagues and members for their support. “You are very humble bunch who seem to be working in water as much as a cause as it is a career,” she says. “For you, being on the front lines of public health is never a slogan. It’s more of a calling.”


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