AWWA Articles

AWWA mentors share strategies for navigating water industry careers

Many of David Lawlor’s classmates have family members in the engineering field who can guide them on career issues outside of the classroom.

But for Lawlor (pictured right), a civil engineering student at the University of North Florida, the only engineer in his family is a person he never met, a great-grandfather who built runways in David Lawlorthe South Pacific during World War II.

That’s where the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) new Mentoring Program came in, pairing Lawlor, a member of AWWA’s Florida Section, with Chance Lauderdale, an experienced engineer, to share ideas, stories and insight. The program aims to capture and transfer institutional knowledge, increase personal fulfillment, promote professional development and create a sense of community among water professionals at different stages in their careers.

Lauderdale (pictured below), who leads HDR’s global drinking water program, joined the mentorship program last fall to reconnect to his home state of Florida after living in seven states over the past 15 years.

Chance Lauderdale“It’s valuable to hear what incoming engineers are concerned with and thinking about as they start their careers,” said Lauderdale, who also holds a doctoral degree in environmental engineering. “There are so many questions you have when you’re trying to wrap up school, and it’s helpful to talk to someone who’s not a professor, family member or internship boss. It felt good to be one of those voices for David.”

Organizers wanted to keep the first year of the program small, starting with 41 pairs in four of AWWA’s sections: Florida, Intermountain, Ohio and Ontario. Many of those pairings happened to be in the engineering field, but could include any profession in the water industry: operations, IT, utility management and more, said Cari Maciolek, AWWA’s student program manager who oversaw the project.

The pilot year was a resounding success, she added, noting that three quarters of participants rated the experience as good or excellent. AWWA’s long-term plan is to grow the program gradually, hopefully expanding it to include all 3,000 student members in AWWA’s 43 sections.

Alonso Hurtado, a graduate student in the Drinking Water Research Group at the University of Toronto, is from Costa Rica and wanted to learn more about the water industry in North America. He joined as a mentee to set career goals and timelines, learn more about the industry’s organizational structure, and network with other professionals.

His mentor, Nathaniel Andres, an engineer with Regional Municipality of Durham in Ontario, helped him with all of his goals and more, introducing him to professionals in the Ontario Section mentoring participantsfield and helping him navigate his first water conference and trade show. (Pictured at right, Ontario Water Works Association mentoring participants, courtesy of Sam Bunch)

Hurtado praised the experience and pressed prospective mentees to push away any feelings of awkwardness that may come with meeting a new mentor. “You will be surprised by the knowledge that you will acquire, the skills you will gain, and the experiences you will share with your mentor,” he said.

Sally Mills-Wright, assistant director of water production for the city of Dallas, chaired AWWA’s mentoring ad hoc committee. She credited her mentors for helping her move forward in her career while navigating issues that came up on a more personal level, such as striking a work-life balance. She encouraged young professionals to join the program and seek out a mentor for those same reasons.

“My mentors always thought and dreamed bigger for me than I ever did for myself,” she said. “That spurred my self-confidence. We don’t get where we’re going on our own.”

Mills-Wright added that serving as a mentor brings its own reward by knowing you’ve passed along important ideas that will extend beyond your tenure in the water industry.

“We’re all here for the same purpose: To provide clean, safe drinking water to our communities,” she said. “That mission will go on long after we’re gone. Having these relationships is a very little investment for a lot in return.”

Learn more about AWWA’s Mentoring Program, or contact Mary Svoboda with questions. More related topics will be discussed at the AWWA/WEF Transformative Issues Symposium on Workforce, Aug. 7-9, in Washington, D.C.