The West Houston Association’s Water Resources and Education & Workforce committee’s spent the morning of Tuesday, July 16th, hearing from an esteemed panel of experts in the water quality, electrical and operations fields. The Water Workforce Forum featured former St. Representative Bill Callegari, Julie Nahrgang, Executive Director of WEAT, Laurie Bricker a consultant and strategist with Trio Electric and moderator Mike Thornhill with Si Environmental.
Callegari began the breakfast panel with a short but substantive message. Right now, there is a crisis in the water industry with a real lack of people learning to become operators. “How do you tell a parent or even a young person ‘Hey we want you to come work on the sewers?'” he asks the audience. “Things have changed since I first got started in the water industry,” shared Callegari. When he began, a typical water district usually consisted of a water well and a cased and packaged water treatment plant. As time continued more subdivisions began to build their own water treatment plants, and operators became more and more valuable as they needed to go out to each subdivision and ensure everything was working. Now, the job of an operator has become much more sophisticated and technology based, yet still hard to explain to anyone not familiar with the industry. Most people today do not know what happens within the water system other than them turning on their faucet and it working or not working. That is where the disconnect between the current and incoming workforce is created. Callegari finished his speech with a strait forward call to action for our committees and audience, “We need to get to a point where people are more educated on what is needed and we need to train people to operate these facilities.”
Julie Nahrgang spoke next and introduced the audience to the Springboard Program a joint program of the Water Environment Association of Texas and the Texas Association of Clean Water Agencies. Nahrgang shared that the two advocacy groups joined together to protect the water quality industry, which was previously known as the wastewater and sewer industry. Nahrgang echoed Representative Callegari’s message that the industry and whats more the world is at a crisis point because the protection of water is foundational to national health. Nahrgang emphasized, “If you cant retain, attract, or retain new water professionals then you can’t protect the environment and human health.” Statistics show that there are more workers in the water industry that are in their prime and nearing retirement, than those that are 34 and younger. Which means there is an increase in the number of industry workers leaving while there is severe lack of workers coming in. The Springboard Program is a workforce pipeline focused on getting people interested in the water industry by adopting best practices of similar programs and selling the idea of “being on the front lines of protecting human health”. The program does so by utilizing paid operator internship programs, helping steer relevant high school curriculum and creating veteran apprenticeship programs. Nahrgang emphasizes that the program uses language that reflects the workforce and the sector today. “We want to show images of wastewater and water quality workers not holding a wrench, but holding an iPad and operating a SCADA system,” Nahrgang shared. The programs first try at this was through the Texas Water annual conference where 12 students from the Energy Institute of Houston got to walk around the exhibit floor and see what operator teams do and compete in. Nahrgang shares that the programs next steps are to implement phase 3 which is tapping into veterans and the potential skilled workforce there, as well as Texas Water 2020 where Irving High school kids can come and tour Texas Water to help feed the City’s internship program.
Laurie Bricker, the only electrician of the group, followed with a presentation on Trio Electric’s Apprenticeship Partnership. Bricker joined Trio Electric to help further an already existing apprenticeship program that started with 50 interested high school graduates. By the end of the first few years the program would only receive about 10 interested students and the company knew something was needed to reinvest students and that is where the Trio Apprenticeship Partnership was formed. Bricker shared that she called her dear friend, and the vice chair of our Education & Workforce committee, Zach Hodges, and told him about her desire for a pathway to a career that also included a certification along with it. For juniors and seniors in high school that means they would spend 2 years in the pre-apprenticeship program and in the summer work for $13/hr in the electrical field. Once graduated, all of the students with a level 1 certificate are eligible for a full time position with Trio Electric. “This all came from a workforce need. Basically [my boss] could not hire enough electricians. The largest commercial electrician in both Houston and Austin could not hire enough electricians so the only way to do it was to grow you own.” Bricker shares that two Trio electricians jumped over to the Guthrie Center to become teachers for high schoolers in the pre-apprenticeship programs and through the success of the program July 27th, 2018 was declared Trip Electric Pre-Apprenticeship Day by the Mayor of Houston. “One of the hardest occupations to fill are the electricians so were taking steps and expanding rapidly to meet those goals,” said Bricker in her closing.
Thank you to our moderator Mike Thornhill and to our panel who all shared wonderful information on the needs of the water and electrical industry workforce’s. Thank you to all our sponsors without whom our events would not be possible. We hope you will join us at our next event the Flood Control Forum August 6th 7:30 – 9:00 featuring USACE’s Andrew Weber and HCFCD’s Matt Zeve.