From Pharmaceuticals to Wastewater, One Woman’s Path to Building a Solid Career

"Know what you organization's priorities are and work at achieving them" - Jennifer Rojas
Jennifer Rojas, Career Stories, Women in Water

With no prior experience, Jennifer Rojas’ entry into the wastewater industry may have seemed a little unconventional. Today, after more than 10 years in her chosen field, she looks back on how adapting the managerial kills she already possessed and being surrounded by her knowledgeable team helped Rojas build a solid career.

“I had just left my position in the pharmaceutical industry when the great recession of 2009 hit. As one could imagine, this was not a great time to start a new job – very few companies were hiring,” she explained. “At a job fair, I learned about a program that was offering free classes focused on the utility industry. Through this opportunity, I obtained state certifications in both Water Distribution and Water Treatment.”

She learned of the many career possibilities available in the utility industry through the classes she attended. A quick study, Rojas had previously graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a specialization in Business and Administration. She quickly moved up the certification ranks.

Today, she has a California Water Environment Association Collection System Maintenance Grade IV certification and State Water Resources Board Water Treatment Grade II and Water Distribution Grade II certifications.

While working through her certifications, she came across a job listing for a procurement officer with the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD). Rojas’ previous professional experience as a buyer in the private retail sector, coupled with her recent certifications in the water field, gave her confidence that this job could be a good fit. She interviewed and got the position.

A few years later, she was promoted to Sewer Superintendent.

“Like most of my professional journey, it was not something that I would have imagined for myself, even a year before,” Rojas said. “Normally, this role was filled with people who moved up through the field ranks, from front-line workers to field supervisors, and so on. However, my boss encouraged me to consider the vacancy in Sewer, explaining why he thought I might succeed in the role.”

She explained that her ability to manage was more important than any technical proficiency, although that would eventually be expected. She spent six years in that role, and last year she was promoted to her current position as the Director of Water and Sewer Field Operations at LBWD.

“Everyone has something of value to contribute, no matter what position they currently hold.”

Rojas believes that the common thread between her previous job experiences in private industry and the water/wastewater sector is that she has always been a manager – of resources, people, or project’s.

“At the same time, none of my success would have been possible without the hard work and expertise of each member of my team,” she said. “I am always impressed with the innovation, commitment, and dedication I see from our field crews every day. My role as a manager is to provide them with the resources that they need to do their jobs safely and effectively, to best serve our customer and the community.”

LBWD serves nearly 500,000 residents in approximately 50 square miles. It manages a a water distribution system of 907 miles with almost 90,000 service connections, a 62.5 mgd groundwater treatment plant, and a water quality laboratory. It recently converted its 90,000 direct-read water meters to Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI.

Of LBWD’s approximately 220 employees, 33 work in the Sewer Operations division responsible for the cleaning, inspection, and spot repairs for the City’s 712 miles of sewer mains and 492 miles of lower laterals in the public right-of-way.

“I’m very proud to work for the Long Beach Water Department,” she said. “It is a wonderful community of great people who really care about providing safe, high-quality drinking water and sewer collection services while continually providing exceptional customer service.”

Rojas said her advice to women going into the water and wastewater field is the same advice she would give to anyone in any industry who wants to advance – know what your organization’s priorities are and work at achieving them.

“Everyone has something of value to contribute, no matte what position they currently hold” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘did my work today help my organization/boss get closer to achieving their goals/objectives?’ If you aren’t sure what your organization’s priorities are, ask. The more you can help your team reach their objectives, the more value you will bring to the organization, setting you apart from the pack.