Creating Water and Wastewater Career Pipelines

Internship program strives to build a more ethnically diverse workforce at San Francisco utilities.

Creating Water and Wastewater Career Pipelines

Yolanda Manzone

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For unprepared water and sewer utilities, the impending wave of baby boomer retirements in the coming years poses a serious challenge in terms of succession planning. But officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission see the so-called silver tsunami as an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the diversity of its workforce.

To that end, the commission — which supplies drinking water to 2.7 million customers in the Bay Area and wastewater services and electric power to city and San Francisco County residents — initiated an outreach program six years ago. The Project Learning Grant Partnership Program focuses on introducing children and teens to careers in the water, wastewater and electric-power industries, says Yolanda Manzone, deputy assistant general manager of external affairs.

“The program is a pillar in what we call a kinder-to-career approach to grooming the next generation of environmental stewards,” Manzone says. “Starting in kindergarten, we’re exposing children to basic ecoliteracy and environmental concepts in hopes of sparking interest in careers in our utilities.

“It’s hard to get people excited about and interested in jobs in these industries if they don’t have a fundamental background in ecoliteracy. This program provides youths of color or youths who live in underserved communities an entry point to a jobs pipeline for our utilities, which over time will help us diversify our workforce.”

The opportunity for boosting diversity certainly exists; Manzone says that about 50% of the roughly 2,300 commission employees are eligible for retirement within the next five years. And they’re primarily white males, she says.

Partnerships are key

The program’s underlying strategy is simple: Form partnerships with community-based, nonprofit organizations that already coordinate paid internships for youths and integrate into those programs a meaningful work-based experience at the commission. Manzone says the commission provides grants worth $15,000 to $25,000 to anywhere from 15 to 25 organizations every year; ratepayer revenue funds the grants.

“Those groups use the grants to carve out a chunk of those internships to focus on water, wastewater and power issues … through a project-based learning component,” Manzone explains. “We provide them with a curriculum that we developed specific to area water, power and wastewater issues.”

The students also participate in project-based programs that focus on increasing their understanding of issues facing the utility. For example, a filmmaking internship gave 14 teens an opportunity to create films about how the commission brings water to residents. In another internship, students learned about environmental stewardship and the basic principles of sustainable water, power and wastewater treatment technologies.

Through 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, 2,815 students — mostly ages 14 to 19 — have participated in internship programs managed by 40 different community groups. The program targets youths who live in communities that bear the brunt of the utilities’ impact, Manzone says.

“These aren’t just disadvantaged children. We have a vested interest in recruiting employees from our most vulnerable and impacted communities … where we, as a utility, have had a disproportionate impact. Some communities bear a bigger burden to provide the kinds of benefits (water and sewer service, for example) that everyone receives.”

As an example, Manzone cites a large treatment plant that handles 80% of the city and county’s stormwater and is located in a low-income community of color. “The people who live by that plant bear a bigger burden than others in terms of socioeconomic damages.”

Multifaceted approach

Manzone says it’s time-consuming to develop partnerships with so many nonprofit groups. But it also offers a primary benefit; by partnering with groups that already work with youths, the commission doesn’t have to build an internship program from scratch.

“We’re partnering with organizations that already have those internships built out. Our funding just adds another learning component — specific to water, power and wastewater — on top of it.”

One manager and one support-staff employee work on administering the program, but they also coordinate other programs, too, she says, so administering the program isn’t a full-time job.

Manzone also notes that the grant partnerships aren’t the only way that the commission engages youth and familiarizes them with potential careers. It also administers educational programs at more than 230 schools and organizations. The programs aim to show students how science, technology, engineering and math can play a role in sustaining natural resources. More than 77,000 students have participated in those programs since 2012, according to commission statistics.

Measuring success

So far, no student interns from the grant-partnerships program have become commission employees. But Manzone says this component of the commission’s efforts is more about career awareness and exposure, as well as getting an ecoliteracy perspective on what it takes to run a water, sewer and power utility.

“These youths then can graduate into other internship programs,” she says. “It’s helpful to think of it as stair-step progression, with this particular program located in midstair. After this, other programs come into play.”

The commission measures the program’s success by the number of youths of color who participate in the program and the exposure they receive to utility operations — awareness that just might spark an interest in a water, wastewater or power career, Manzone says.

“The intrinsic value lies in the fact that these students get this extra learning and awareness of potential careers. It can set these youths on a completely different career path to which they’d otherwise never be exposed.

“We see it in their eyes when they speak passionately about topics such as water access and water rights and environmental justice related to the water industry — subjects they never would’ve considered before. That’s the real value.” 


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