Generally, if you want to stop a thing from draining, you’d grab some sort of plug. But in the oft-used analogy of “the brain drain,” there might just be a better tool: a sponge.
With water professionals retiring in droves and the industry bemoaning the loss of all that institutional wisdom, the answer to replacing these seasoned pros just might come in the form of young professionals looking for industry veterans to mentor and guide them.
“It’s up to us, the up-and-comers, to soak up as much knowledge as we can before they leave us,” said Rene Guillen, a Brown and Caldwell engineer fresh out of school and working on water quality and stormwater projects in the company’s Walnut Creek, Calif., office.
The 2012 graduate earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and his master’s degree at the University of California at Davis. He did co-ops with MWH Global and the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District before deciding to accept a position with Brown and Caldwell. Guillen says he is well aware of the so–called “brain drain” and intends to learn everything he can while he can. “It’s exciting to work with people who’ve got that much experience.”
The regulatory boom of the 1970s, which coincided with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and millions of baby boomers entering the workforce, brought water professionals born between 1946 and 1964 to the industry in huge numbers. About 77 million baby boomers turned 60 in 2006 and, not coincidentally, the average water utility will lose about 50 percent of its current employees during the next decade, according to the American Water Works Association.
Nancy Sheely, job placement director for Ohio Northern University, sees this situation coming to a head in the next five years.
“There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on,” Sheely said. “We’re seeing some organizations forecasting and planning but others are still going ‘woe is me’ and haven’t gotten on board.”
Jackie Torbert, manager of the Orange County (Fla.) Utilities Water Division for more than 15 years, said she’s watched many of her colleagues retire during the past five years and expects another 30 percent to 40 percent to take the retirement plunge.
“It’s very real,” Torbert said of the brain drain phenomenon. “Luckily, about five or six years ago we started to look to the younger generation for two things: for them to help us and for us to help them. And it’s been a lifesaver.”
The professionals who are close to retiring enjoy imparting their wisdom to college students who are interning with the utility or just starting out, she said. “They become their private little projects and they are quite proud to share their knowledge.”
Jennifer Allen, director of public affairs for the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, Calif., recently graduated from the California Water Leaders Class, which she said “proved to be an invaluable experience to converse directly with those with varying expertise and perspectives of California water.”
“There is a depth of knowledge that textbooks cannot capture,” said Allen, who serves as a member of the Water Education Foundation board. “I think a lot of responsibility lies on the up-and-coming leaders in the water industry to take advantage of opportunities to learn from and question those who have been involved with the long history of water issues.”
Kelsi Oshiro, who also attended UoP and co-oped at CCCSD before coming to BC, says she’s only been with the firm for three months but she’s already worked on a wide variety of projects — including wastewater, infrastructure and a master plan update.
“I’m learning new technical and professional skills every day,” said Oshiro, who really appreciates that the more experienced engineers have an open-door policy and want to act as mentors. “They not only give you the task, they give you the background and they make sure you understand the task.”
Mentoring is certainly a win-win and co-ops and internships are a good solution to the brain drain problem, Sheely said, but first the industry must attract young professionals to mentor.
“My greatest concern is the industry isn’t going to step it up soon enough to attract the talent they need,” Sheely said.
Between 70 percent and 80 percent of large corporations recognize that the brain drain is coming, but less than 20 percent are doing anything about it. Because internships aren’t considered mission critical, a lot of employers don’t even advertise them, Sheely added.
“You’ve got to appeal to the things that matter to them — find out what’s important to them,” she said. “Young people are environmentally conscious, they’re community minded, but they also value fun. They want to be on the cutting edge of technology and environmental regulation and apply these things in a real-world situation.”
Some utilities, though, are ahead of the curve. “It is not so much that the brain drain is overstated, but we have anticipated the challenges of a changing workforce and have taken actions to prepare for the retirements that are affecting our industry,” said Alexander Coate, general manager of East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif.
One of EBMUD’s strategies for preparing existing employees for career opportunities has been to institute training academies that target specific areas of need. For example, Coate noted, EBMUD has a supervisory skills academy that is voluntary and requires attendees to devote personal time in addition to receiving training on paid time. “We’ve had very positive feedback from attendees who feel they are not only better prepared for promotion, but have a better understanding of the district overall,” he said.
College and/or graduate education is important for many EBMUD jobs, Coate said, but a large number of classifications require strong vocational skills, too: plumbers, electrical, mechanical and instrument technicians, and water and wastewater operators, for example. “We have established partnerships with community colleges to provide internships and other on-the-job placement opportunities in order to broaden our applicant pool,” he said. “We have also provided trainers and curriculum input to strengthen the educational programs offered by these colleges.”
Allen Townsend, a graduate of Clemson University in South Carolina, had a chance to work at Renewable Water Resources in Greenville, S.C., as part of a co-op during his senior year and the experience helped him carve out his career trajectory. “When I went back to my classes I just had so much more understanding and appreciation of what I was doing and why,” he said.
It was at ReWa that he met BC’s Wayne Iseman and ended up landing a summer internship in the Columbia, S.C., office and later a position in the Virginia Beach office, where he started working right after he finished school in May 2011.
“I worked with quite a few of the consulting firms and BC definitely stood out,” Townsend said. “The people who were working on the project at the time seemed interested in me.”
Sheely said students are overwhelmed with choices and tend to favor companies that come to job fairs on campus and take an interest in them. Being online is also crucial for engaging students.
“Students don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “Employers have to use Facebook, LinkedIn. It’s the best place for employers to connect with students. This is where our younger generation is.”
CCWD’s Allen agrees. “We can always do more, but the Water Leaders Class and the district’s intern program are examples of opportunities to match up experts and future leaders to transfer knowledge. While there is much responsibility placed on professionals to pass on knowledge, those new to the industry must be engaged and ask questions to better understand the issues. Our responsibility is to build on what
has been learned.”
Even though financial support for public works operations is on the decline and a widening gap exists between the funds available and the capital needs of an aging infrastructure nationwide, the need for water professionals isn’t waning. Water and sewage systems services are projected to grow 13 percent between 2008 and 2018, so engineering students won’t be wanting for opportunities.
Co-ops and internships are an excellent way for college students to zero in on what field they’d like to concentrate on.
“Employers want students to have a clue as to what they want to do,” Sheely said, adding that 60 percent of students who co-op get hired. “It helps the students really focus and see the real-world realities of the theory they’re learning in the classroom.”
Townsend started out being interested in buildings and bridges, but later became fascinated by the world of water resources and the environmental side.
“It was like the light just turned on,” he said.
Guillen had similar thoughts initially, and figured he’d be an architect or work on bridge design.
“You don’t grow up thinking, ‘I want to design a wastewater treatment plant,’ ” he said. “But then I took a water class.”
His structure courses were much more “cookbook,” with fewer variables and less room for creativity than what he’d seen of the water industry.
“This work is challenging and fun,” Guillen said.