Insights from the Water Industry’s Next-Gen Talent

While the workforce currently spans five generations of employees, Millennials account for one-third of the working population with members of Generation Z starting their careers. As this generational shift in the workforce continues, it is important to foster up and coming members of the water industry through events like the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) Young Professionals (YP) Summit. This annual event brings together undergraduate and graduate students and early career professionals for opportunities to network, learn, and spark conversation about serving the water sector at large.

In addition to my role here at Woodard & Curran, I volunteer as a member of the AWWA YP Committee with my colleagues Renee Lanza and Stephanie Hubli, who serves as the current vice chair. Together, we joined more than 200 of our peers at the 2023 YP Summit held in Sacramento, California this year. Attendees came with a range of experience from an array of sectors, including engineering, operations, construction, communications,  laboratory staff, and customer service. The summit included discussions around tools for water professionals, how to get involved in water policymaking process, developments in water reuse in California, and how to innovate your personal brand and your work.

Event organizers asked attendees to rank the most pressing issues facing the water industry to guide discussions during the YP Summit but noticed something interesting in the findings. The top three issues according to poll respondents are aging infrastructure, climate change, and emerging contaminants. While the State of the Water Industry (SOWI) has ranked aging infrastructure as its top priority five years running now, climate change and emerging contaminants did not make SOWI’s top 20.


Pooja Chari Project Engineer Water Infrastructure

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What’s fueling the young professional’s perspective

Greta Thunberg became a household name in 2018 after the then 15-year-old protested the Swedish parliament, creating a global student movement to pressure national governments to act against climate change. Colleagues at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication coined the term “the Greta Thunberg Effect” in their 2021 Journal of Applied Social Psychology publication in which they establish that exposure to climate activists like Thunberg motivates others to participate in collective action against climate change.

While we can’t say for sure if Greta had any influence on the respondents at the YP Summit, Renee says, “A lot of Millennials coming into leadership are really driving the current environmental, social, and governance movement because we have seen in our lifetime the changes that have already occurred and there will be a greater impact in our lifetime if we don’t directly address it.”

As we examine how attendees at the YP Summit ranked their greatest concerns, a lot of it comes down to being proactive about infrastructure rather than reactive. For example, if a pump station needs to be upgraded, can it be elevated to ensure it is well out of the 100-year flood zone? Is the project that is shovel ready, shovel worthy? In California, Stephanie says, “I have seen agencies looping in a more intense focus on planning for extremes within routine projects and normal emergency preparedness situations. It seems they’re more accepting of climate change happening, since they’re experiencing firsthand the impacts from both less frequent and more intense precipitation and an increase in catastrophic events such as wildfires and mudslides.”

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My awareness of the infrastructure and resources required to bring clean water to my tap was extremely limited before I joined the water industry. Now I feel like I am finally behind-the-scenes of a movie that I’ve watched dozens of times. It is my purpose to open the curtains to let others in.

Stephanie Hubli Project Engineer Pictured center with Pooja Chari (left) and Renee Lanza

Fostering young professionals’ engagement and career growth

I became involved with AWWA as a student, and through the association’s networking opportunities, I met Renee and came to work at Woodard & Curran. Beyond connecting with my peers on the consulting side of the water industry, AWWA has been a valuable resource to connect with public clients, vendors, regulators, and others who provide insight to different sides of the business. Being involved on the national level has also helped me understand how our work varies regionally based on a myriad of factors.

“I’ve expanded my network of resources from the educational and technical opportunities AWWA provides, but also from the people I’ve interacted with. If I have a question, I have a bench of expertise within and outside of Woodard & Curran to draw upon,” says Stephanie. “It has also provided me with professional growth opportunities from leading meetings and coordinating events to rallying people for a specific cause.”

“I really can’t imagine what my career would look like if I weren’t involved in professional associations, such as New England Water Works Association or AWWA, at the regional and national level,” says Renee. “The water world becomes much smaller, and you know someone in every corner of the country. You can go to a conference with 10,000 people and run into someone you know every 10 feet. It builds a sense of community and reinforces the work we do.”

With support from our people leaders, being involved in organizations such as AWWA reaps long-term rewards for us as individuals, but also for Woodard & Curran as whole as it becomes a pipeline for talent, innovation, and future projects.

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