Janel Ancayan (l) from West Basin MWD, and Monica Sijder (r) from WRD, lead educational outreach for their agencies and are implementing new programs to raise awareness about water careers. (photo by Michael Calabria, West Basin MWD)

Recruiting Water’s Next Gen: Encourage Curiosity and Reflect the Community

Two LA County water agencies expand public outreach to raise awareness about water careers
By Alec Mackie, CWEA Staff, Career Stories, Women in Water

As the exodus of water workers continues due to retirements, agencies are discovering a painful truth – the pipeline of incoming talent is running dry. Adding to recruitment struggles, most Californians don’t know water careers exist.

For two water districts in southern Los Angeles County, the growing number of job openings and lack of public awareness led to a new initiative – adding recruitment and career education to their slate of robust community education programming.

As regional workforce development lags, leaders from the Water Replenishment District and West Basin Municipal Water District decided to dive in and develop their own workforce outreach programs that would appeal to their unique communities.

“We don’t want to be in a place where we don’t have enough skilled workers to continue water operations,” said Janel Ancayan, West Basin’s Education Coordinator. “The way I see it, education is truly the foundation of all water careers, and it starts with giving students career exploration opportunities.”

For WRD, managers of the nation’s largest adjudicated groundwater basin, feedback was coming in from the 43 cities in their service area and from local water retailers that they were struggling to fill water distribution and treatment plant operator jobs.

“We realized there was a lack of resources when it came to water careers, so we wanted to create something that exposed young students to these careers,” said Monica Sijder, Senior Public Affairs Representative for WRD. “I thought there should be more resources about the water industry for anyone who is interested.”

A Chance Meeting

The unique partnership between WRD, a groundwater agency, and West Basin, a water wholesaler, happened somewhat randomly. Janel and Monica are both experts in student outreach and curriculum development, working to implement outreach and classes about water conservation, groundwater resources, and recycling. Monica holds a Master’s in Education and was a teacher for LAUSD early on in her career. Janel has a degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in education.

The two educators met during a Metropolitan Water District water education coordinators meeting. They found themselves in a breakout room together and realized both agencies were hearing about workforce recruitment struggles.

“I felt it would be good if we had a library of careers in the water industry and some recorded videos as resources for teachers,” said Monica. “Janel and I started talking, and I thought she might be interested in a joint effort. I’m glad I approached her because she’s wonderful to work with.”

Reflecting Their Communities

The joint program to highlight careers began in 2020 and featured video interviews with WRD and West Basin professionals, including spotlights on engineers, operators, hydrogeologists, GIS analysts and more.

The campaign grew to include live webinars where students could listen to water professionals describe their career path and learn how they got into the industry. It also offered students a chance to chat with working professionals.

A key part of the joint effort is to highlight the diversity of West Basin and WRD professionals, reflect the diversity of LA county, and to demonstrate that everyone is welcome within the water industry

“There is definitely a diversity, equity and inclusion component to our program,” said Janel. “We are intentional when selecting panelists. We want to reflect the diversity of our communities. That’s why we chose to feature two women in water this year. One an engineer and the other a government affairs representative. That’s why we featured people from different backgrounds. It shows students that representation matters. We want to show people no matter your background, you too can have a fulfilling career within the water industry.”

For WRD, reaching out to the 4 million residents served by the district is an important part of their mission. The District’s Board of Directors formed the Future Water Workforce ad hoc committee and partnered with local community colleges and high schools. The ad hoc committee is led by WRD Director Sergio Calderon, an educator, and Board President Director John Allen.

“Part of our goal is to feature minorities and women working in the water industry. Teachers ask us for people who reflect their community to be able to communicate with students,” said Monica from WRD. “We really need more people who look like them so students can say, ‘Okay, if they made it, I can make it too.’”

Water careers panel discussion. Click to view the recorded webinar.

Outreach Success

The focus on career outreach is paying off. West Basin has completed six career highlight videos and WRD has completed four.

Their joint career panel webinars and discussions have reached over 200 high school students in the region and are recorded so teachers can play them at any time for their class.

“The resources are out there,” said Janel. “I think it’s just a matter of public information professionals like us, really making those connections to help empower people with the resources they need.”

One of Monica’s favorite in-person events are career days at schools.

“There are so many hidden gem careers that people don’t know about,” noted Monica. “Our goal is to make these jobs accessible and encourage young people to explore these opportunities. We try to make it fun and appealing by asking, ‘Who wants to wear shorts and a t-shirt to work? Who wants to earn a good salary?’’’

Results from the program appeared quickly. After encouraging students to reach out, one student contacted WRD. The student is majoring in GIS and was interested in the GIS analyst who was featured in one of the career webinars. GIS is a critical role for water agencies.

“Claudia was proactive and sent an email to the district inquiring about internship opportunities after attending one of our career webinars.” said Monica. “This is one of the lessons we teach during our water career programming, and it worked!”

The external affairs team was looking for an intern to assist with the StoryMap system that is part of the ArcGIS software package, as well as other public outreach duties. Claudia A. Alvarez was hired as an intern. From water career webinar to intern in only a couple of months. (see sidebar)

Promoting Water Careers

What have WRD and West Basin learned about promoting water careers? There’s still a mountain of work still to be done in order to help people get into our industry.

Monica believes water needs a marketing campaign. Something catchy such as the old ‘Got Milk?’ advertisements to help make our sector appealing and compete better with oil and gas careers.

The industry is also too internally focused. We need to spend less time only talking to each other, poaching employees from one another, and more time talking about careers with people in the community.

We also need to help students find and explore a career path. Where are the internships, the apprenticeships, and job shadowing opportunities to help students learn if a water career is right for them?

“I think the challenge is partnering up with high schools so students have a clear path to join us. We can get them interested and then what? Where do they go next?” asked Janel.

Co-workers sometimes decline outreach events and career days because they’re simply too busy working on their projects. Monica poses these questions to get them excited about talking with students. “Remember the people who inspired you. What prompted you to become a water professional? Don’t you want to be someone’s catalyst for a water career?”

Janel believes the success and reliability of water and wastewater services has led our sector to become completely invisible to the public.

“It’s like magic,” she said. “People don’t think about where it comes from or the expertise, knowledge, and people behind the scenes making this happen.”

Janel noted a great way to start a career talk is to note the importance of clean water.

“I love to open our career panels with the fact people will always need water,” she said. “That’s the allure of our industry. Whatever happens, anywhere you want to go in the world, people always need water. You’ll always be in demand.

“During the pandemic we were needed. Even after a zombie attack, people will need safe, clean water. This career is never going away.”

To keep students interested, Janel and Monica fall back on their educational training – they encourage students to keep asking questions, be curious about careers, and never shy away from asking a working professional a question.

“At the end of a career day with third to fifth graders, I ask them ‘Make a list of all the careers you’re interested in. Every week, look up one career and reach out to someone. Even if they say no, eventually you’ll find someone who says come on by. Learn about that career and if it’s for you. When you get to high school, you’ll have a list of careers you’re interested in and can keep exploring.’

“I really think outreach for careers in the water industry, or even for water conservation, should start with young kids,” said Monica. “I can’t emphasize how important that outreach is.”

Outreach Success Story

One Water Career Journey

In 2020, Whittier College graduate Claudia A. Alvarez attended one of the WRD and West Basin career webinars and became interested in our sector. Claudia recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a Master’s in Geographic Information Science .

How did you get the internship?

I attended a career panel discussion which featured a GIS analyst, an area I was interested in and wanted to learn more about.

After the webinar, the GIS career path sounded interesting, so I emailed WRD and learned there was an internship in external affairs. I’ve never had an in-person internship, so it has been so exciting learning new things day-to-day.

What interests you about water?

My interest has always been in sustainability, to be honest I didn’t know which direction I wanted to take when I was at Whittier College. Water is not something I thought you could have a career in because I didn’t know much about it.

Intern Claudia A. Alvarez is responsible for starting-up and monitoring the educational displays inside the Albert Robles Center in Pico Rivera. (WRD photo)

What are your duties as an intern?

I mainly work at the Albert Robles Center, opening the center, checking the educational displays, and keeping a daily log. I help create educational materials such as groundwater kits and design external affairs educational worksheets..

I also help external affairs by building StoryMaps using the ArcGIS StoryMaps software. I build stories about groundwater and the resources WRD has for teachers. We create interactive maps with different tabs to help teachers navigate our resources, such as learning more about a topic or ordering the educational tools that WRD offers.

What do you enjoy about working at WRD?

I didn’t know anything about groundwater, it’s been wonderful working here and expanding my knowledge. I wish I had this experience in high school, and it’s nice to know students have the option now of visiting the Albert Robles Center and learning more about water. I also enjoyed the work environment and how everyone I have interacted with has been welcoming and just a good place to be at.

What do you recommend we do to promote water careers?

I think raising the profile of water is important, tours are a good idea.

As a student, when I went on a tour of a water resource recovery facility in Whitter it made an impact on me. They told us a story about the treatment process. This is the water we’re using and the water going back into the environment. It’s a story that makes water a more human experience.

I’d also suggest highlighting the variability of water jobs. There are so many aspects to water and opportunities that I didn’t know about until I got here. Internships are a good way to see if this is the right place for you.

I also think LinkedIn is a good resource. If I was interested in a field, I would look through people’s profiles and their education and background to see what it takes to get your foot in the door.

I would also reach out to people to ask them questions. Not everyone responds, the ones who did are happy to answer questions and some would even forward me job openings and other opportunities.

So there you go – tours, sharing water stories to make it a more human experience, and encouraging students to ask us questions – all great ways to promote water careers and build that next gen pipeline of talent.

Have an idea for water career outreach? Let us know!