Developing the Water Industry Workforce

A Baltimore initiative recruits unemployed and underemployed young people and trains them for water and wastewater careers.

Developing the Water Industry Workforce

YH20 participant Darrius Pugh delivers remarks at the 2015 closing ceremony to celebrate the completion of the inaugural class of the water mentoring program.

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Upon seeing seasoned workers leave for retirement and take many years of institutional knowledge with them, Rudolph S. Chow, P.E., met with department and industry colleagues and came up with a way to address the problem.

At the same time, Baltimore was experiencing widespread underemployment among young people, and city officials wanted to help address that, as well. Chow, director of public works, partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development and the Chesapeake Water Environment Association. After eight months, they had developed a three-phase program known as YH2O, piloted in 2015.

Chow wanted to target younger workers and get them interested in the water industry as they started their careers. He felt that group would benefit the most from career guidance and support and would help replace the experienced workers leaving the industry.

Targeting millennials

“Baby boomers are very loyal to the companies they work for, but the millennials are slightly different; they like to move around,” Chow says. “I feel it’s our responsibility to keep them motivated and help them to continually learn. That includes grooming them for other roles within the utility.

“With more than 3,000 employees, our department is very large, so they can move up and advance and it’s like going to a new job for them. In this way, we can keep them and their knowledge here, creating a new generation of workers to fill the roles of the retirees.”

The city has 1.8 million residential and business water and wastewater customers, and these roles in the Department of Public Works include jobs in wastewater, water, solid waste and energy. Applicants for the YH2O program, ages of 18-24, must have a high school degree or GED and be either unemployed or underemployed. Registration runs from mid-December through early January, and participants are chosen in February.

Structured training

Out of about 70 applicants, 20 are typically chosen for each class. In the first phase of the six-month program, held at the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, participants complete a skill and interest assessment and take part in basic job-readiness training, which covers topics including attendance, dress and resume preparation.

In the second phase, participants explore a variety of career options in the water industry through the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. They take part in job shadowing that includes work site tours at the wastewater treatment and water filtration plants. They are paired with a career coach from the Department of Public Works and Chesapeake Water Environment Association to learn about roles and opportunities.

In the third and final phase, participants are placed in paid summer jobs at the Department of Public Works through the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development’s YouthWorks program and start interviewing for full-time positions at the plants. The YH2O workers are then placed in areas of the Department of Public Works Bureau of Water and Wastewater. Most stay in those positions for a long term before advancing to other roles.

Impressive results

To date, 41 young people have completed the program and all are still employed with the Department of Public Works. Positions they have filled include water operation technician apprentice, maintenance technician, customer service, lab assistant and public works inspector trainee.

According to Jennifer Combs, Department of Public Works public relations officer, “We have received great feedback from the participants. For some, the program gives them structure and inspiration to return to college for jobs in the environment or other areas. Some who complete the program and are parents like the stability of a full-time, well-paying job with a promising future.”

A set of twin brothers took part; one left a full-time retail position after taking the classes because he saw better career potential in the water industry. Both brothers work in the Department of Public Works and were recently promoted to utility installer II.

Awards and recognition

The Department of Public Works recently received a Public Communication & Outreach Program Award for YH2O from the Water Environment Federation. In addition, NASSCO awarded scholarships to seven graduates from the 2015 and 2016 programs. The scholarships, for pipeline inspection certification training, were valued at $800.

Recognizing the success of YH2O, the leaders of Charlotte (North Carolina) Water and a group of Washington, D.C., government representatives recently visited Baltimore to seek advice on establishing similar mentoring programs.


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