Students on a tour hosted by Eastern MWD

Inland Empire Utilities Launch Water Workforce Development Program

By Naseem Farooqi, West Valley Water District, Career Stories

In the face of a pandemic, economic slump and deepening utilities talent issues, West Valley Water District (WVWD) leadership united a group of Inland Empire water and wastewater utility agencies, local colleges and community stakeholders to launch a groundbreaking initiative, IEWorks, which will help build a strong regional workforce.

“In the face of retirements, a growing population and rising demand for water, we must fill critical positions in the water and wastewater industries. As a matter of economic equity, we must also develop an inclusive talent pipeline that uplifts underserved and marginalized communities,” said WVWD Board President Channing Hawkins. “IEWorks won’t just provide jobs, it’ll heal, grow and empower communities and people. Every career we secure is another individual and family placed on the path to prosperity and a life primed for security and success.”

“I’m passionate about this initiative because my life changed as a result of targeted opportunities like these,” said Western Municipal Water District Board Vice President Gracie Torres. “When I was a young single mom and I applied for a small Western Municipal Water District scholarship that changed the trajectory of my life. There are so many of us with local water agencies that are ready to move the Inland Empire forward together and invest in the lives of our people.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, water and wastewater agencies are facing a significant number of retirements from water treatment plant and system operators over the next three to five years, leaving less talent in the industry. Experts within the Inland Empire project a total of 835 openings in critical local industry occupations by 2023. To address this problem, a group of Inland Empire utility agencies, colleges and community stakeholders formed an alliance and organization, IEWorks, to increase the number of highly-qualified candidates for critical positions.

Launching officially on April 1st, 2021, IEWorks will foster talent, diversity and jobs through apprenticeships, internships and career awareness opportunities in the region’s water and wastewater industry. The organization’s mission is to increase the number of highly-qualified candidates for industry positions, while promoting economic equity. To fulfill this mission, IEWorks secured over $1 million in funding from the U.S Department of Education and additional funding from the California High Road Training Partnership to support a full-time staff position, worker wages, supportive services and technical assistance.

Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a national organization with regional chapters that specializes in career pathway training and management, will facilitate the IEWorks initiative. JVS will seek to replicate the success of a similar workforce training program, BAYWORK, a collaboration of 28 water and wastewater agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area. JVS will provide much of the groundwork and will continue to provide infrastructure for the IEWorks program. In 2016, BAYWORK partnered with JVS to reassess industry needs and implement training programs. From 2017 to 2018 alone, the Bay Area JVS program helped 75 percent of the program’s over 2,500 working graduates that year find jobs paying them at least $40,000 annually.

“We’re looking forward to launching this career pathways program through partnerships with school districts and providing paid internships for college students who are pursuing trades, jobs and careers in the water and wastewater industries,” said JVS Director of Utilities Elizabeth Toups. “We’re prioritizing workers who are from groups that are underrepresented in the water and wastewater industries and we really want to make a difference especially for young adults, women and people in black and brown communities across the Inland Empire.”

Over the next two years, JVS will work with the IEWorks pilot program to train 100 workers, which will result in 80 permanent jobs. Through IEWorks and JVS assistance, Inland Empire water and wastewater industry agencies will partner with colleges to help students earn school credit, pay students as they learn and place them into jobs after they graduate. As each student develops his or her skills through school classes, industry certifications and work experience, their wages will increase. In the end, students will seamlessly transition into full-time, full-salaried career water and wastewater industry workers.

During the IEWorks launch, Board President Hawkins joined several local leaders including Western Municipal Water District Board Vice President Gracie Torres, Western Municipal Water District, Deputy General Manager Tim Barr, BAYWORK Vice President Robert Scott, Jr., JVS Director of Utilities Elizabeth Toups and UCLA Labor Center Project Director Lola Smallwood Cuevas. The launch featured a virtual summit that included panel discussions on the industry’s critical talent shortage, training needs and economic equity issues. For more information about training, jobs and opportunities with IEWorks, please contact Naseem Farooqi with WVWD at [email protected] or Elizabeth Toups with JVS at [email protected].