Compass Award Winners Shed Light On Shortages In The Water Workforce

Bill Callegari and Todd Burrer are the latest recipients of the West Houston Association Compass Award for their extraordinary efforts in seeking a resolution to the growing decline in regional water service operators.  Both recipients were awarded at the West Houston Association City Issues Forum on May 14th, in which Mayor Sylvester Turner was the main speaker.

Auggie Campbell, Outgoing CEO/President of the West Houston Association, introduced the award by providing brief insight into the issue with regional water service providers. “At a WHA Water Resources Committee meeting, Bill Callegari mentioned an issue in the regional water service provider industry. Licensed operators aged out of the workforce faster than new ones entered into the pipeline.”

Bill Callegari stated, “Most people aren’t interested in having a great career working in the sewer. Current programs have difficulty attracting students.” Bill Callegari entered the water industry in 1972, served as a representative in the Texas House of Representatives and currently works as a civil engineer for various water districts.

The water industry is a uniquely significant job. Michael Thornhill, Director of Compliance at Si Environmental, was also recognized for his contributions to water workforce efforts.  “Most people don’t realize how important it is until you’re working in it.” He then pointed out that the first thing the CDC requested of everyone when COVID-19 hit was to wash their hands, which is not possible without clean water. “When there are evacuations due to flooding, they will not let people return until water services has returned.“

The West Houston Association Education and Workforce Development Committee responded by collaborating with the Water Resources Committee to create a Water Workforce Technical Forum and hosted workshops to spread awareness and solicit solutions for the need.

Todd Burrer of Inframark is among this group of people that played a significant role in contributing to the collaboration of regional partners – the Water Environmental Association of Texas (WEAT), Si Environmental, and the City of Houston Public Works Department.

Dylan Christenson, Ph.D., Process Specialist for Black & Veatch said, “Todd Burrer, Roy Aristizabel, and the whole Inframark team have been outstanding partners and champions of the water/wastewater workforce initiative from the very beginning and we are so happy to have their support.”

According to the Department of Labor, Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators has a 5% decline in job outlook and nearly 35% of water and wastewater operators set to retire in the next few years. After 2 years of regional efforts and partnership with the Department of Labor, WEAT successfully established the first Water and Wastewater Operator Apprenticeship Program in the State of Texas.

The West Houston Association also recognizes the following individuals for their leadership in establishing the program.

  • Julie Nahrgang – Water Environment Association of Texas
  • Michael Thornhill – Si Environmental
  • Dylan Christenson -Black & Veatch
  • Katie Zheng – SouthWest Water Company
  • Janet Harreld – Houston Community College
  • Zachary Hodges – Houston Community College
  • The Department of Labor
  • Houston Public Works

Various contributors of this initiative emphasized their appreciation to the West Houston Association for its approach to resolve this community issue. Callegari stated, “West Houston Association’s efforts in this topic is laudable. It’s bringing all of our efforts together to keep this mission moving.”

Thornhill stated, “I appreciate the fact that the three of us, all working at competing firms, are able to put that aside and pull our collective knowledge, experiences, and resources together to help the entire industry in a collaborative effort when necessary. This may happen in response to new legislation, natural disasters, or even the latest pandemic. Unfortunately, this kind of response has been required more often here lately but it almost certainly gets the best results possible for everyone in general.”

Christenson said, “West Houston Association has been a great partner as well and we appreciate Bill Callegari’s support as he has been a great champion of supporting and growing the water/wastewater workforce.”

The West Houston Association adopted the Compass Award in December 2019 to recognize the efforts of members that lead efforts and provide direction to the organization that inspires sustainable, quality growth. The most recent past recipient is Michael F. Bloom, Sustainability Trailblazer, for his remarkable efforts in aiding WHA’s promotion of the Envision Rating System, a best practice guide on developing and implementing resilient and sustainable infrastructure.