Introduces underrepresented minority students to working in water
As the “silver tsunami” of retirements that will result in a mass exodus of U.S. workers approaches, the water sector is taking steps to prepare as well as encourage greater diversity in its workforce. At WEFTEC® 2018, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) piloted a new program to help address this need for a younger and more diverse workforce.
WEF InFLOW, which stands for Introducing Future Leaders to Opportunities in Water, brought underrepresented minority students to WEFTEC and introduced them to working in the water sector. The program also sought to help these students foster a network within WEF’s membership to increase opportunities for mentorship and employment.
The WEFTEC Opening General Session was among the activities slated for student participating in the WEF InFLOW program. The students received front row seats. Credit: Oscar & Associates
New research this summer helped prompt action on the coming wave of retirements. In June 2018 the Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C.) published the report, Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving Water Infrastructure and Creating a Pipeline to Opportunity. The report found that the silver tsunami will cut drastically into the pool of skilled, qualified water sector workers. For some utilities this could result in staffing vacancies of up to 50%.
The report also points out a lack of diversity in the water workforce. The percentage of black and Asian water workers lags behind the national average for all occupations combined. Additionally, for higher paying water occupations, such as engineering and management, black and Hispanic workers are particularly underrepresented.
WEF InFLOW participants with WEF President Tom Kunetz and panelists from a networking event scheduled just for them. Credit: Oscar & Associates
Students from University of South Florida teach the next generation of water students the “Water Cycle Dance” during Water Palooza at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, LA. Credit: Rahkia Nance/Water Environment Federation
This pilot year of the WEF InFLOW primarily focused on African American students. African Americans are one of the most underrepresented groups with respect to the percentage of the population versus percentage engaged in STEM.
InFLOW brought a total of 16 undergraduate and graduate students to WEFTEC from Howard University (Washington, D.C.), Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, Ala.), and the University of South Florida (Tampa, Fla.). The group of eight men and eight women had a range of technical backgrounds and awareness of water sector opportunities. One student is pursuing a doctorate in the water sector. The students from Tuskegee University had summer internships related to water. Many other students, however, had no background knowledge of water sector possibilities.
The 2018 InFLOW program relied on generous support from program sponsors: Arcadis, GlobalWET, Centrysis/CNP, Environmental Technical Sales Inc. (ETEC), and the Milwaukee Water Council. Because of these sponsors, the students received travel assistance, hotel accommodations, registration, and special networking opportunities at WEFTEC.
WATER SECTOR INTRODUCTIONS
The students’ schedules included both technical and networking events. They participated in many events coordinated by the WEF Students and Young Professionals Committee. These included Water Palooza – where the USF students are now famous for introducing us to the “Water Cycle Dance”– the Community Service Project, committee meetings, the WEF Career Fair, and Student Design Competition. The students attended the Opening General Session and were encouraged to explore the exhibition and attend technical sessions.
Aside from these traditional WEFTEC activities, the students attended two special events. The first was a networking panel that introduced the students to some African American water sector leaders who represented utilities, academia, consulting, and manufacturing. Panelist such as David Gadis, CEO and president of DC Water (Washington, D.C.), and Kishia Powell, Commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management for the City of Atlanta, talked about their journeys and career paths as well as answered the students’ questions. Gadis and Powell shared their insights about how to use diversity not as a barrier, but as a quality to be remembered by. A networking lunch wrapped up the InFLOW students’ WEFTEC experience.
The program already has yielded one result: Howard University is working to start a WEF student chapter. This chapter which will help to expand the program’s reach to more students at the university.The chapter is hoping to participate in future Student Design Competitions.
The InFLOW program will continue to grow in the coming years. WEF intends to expand the number of participating schools and students, as well as include a second track with activities focused on operations and maintenance.