AWWA Articles

Transformative thoughts for building your future workforce

By Stuart Karasik, Ph.D.

To bring about positive change, sometimes you must be a disruptor.

Career Zone

That was the message presented by Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of historically black Howard University, during his keynote address at the Transformative Issues Symposium on Workforce I attended earlier this month.

The Symposium, sponsored by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF), was an opportunity to learn more about workforce topics I was familiar with and hear about exciting new initiatives in the water sector.

Dr. Frederick, a Gen-X man in a stylish suit and tie, didn’t fit my expectation of a typical college president. Rather than being an Ivory Tower academic, he maintains his surgical oncology practice while overseeing daily operations at Howard, a private, federally chartered university in Washington, D.C.

As a proud Howard alumnus himself, he was hired, he said, to increase, modernize and update Howard’s educational experience and make it more flexible and relevant to today’s educational environment and rapidly-changing job market. Basically, he said, he is a “disruptor.” While updating the university’s policies, systems and requirements, he also has managed to increase its endowment. What were some of his successful tactics?

•    Develop Howard degree programs that effectively meet current workforce and employer needs
•    Establish a “Howard West” model to update the school’s high-tech curriculum and develop internship opportunities for Howard students at Google
•    Increase the number of Howard graduates in fields such as technology and entertainment management by establishing employment relationships in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and New York
•    Streamline the process for completing undergraduate and graduate degrees  
•    Send tenured faculty out into industry to learn what skills and knowledge are needed from new graduates

There are obvious lessons to be learned in the water sector from Dr. Frederick’s achievements at Howard University. Traditionally, our sector has been slow to react and respond to change. Many water organizations and utilities still work under complicated and antiquated policies. And like many industries, our leadership model values years of experience and climbing the ladder, one painful step at a time.
As was emphasized at the Symposium, the water sector’s critical employment needs and requirements must be addressed now. For your consideration, I collected the following strategies from the many that were presented at the conference.

1.    Review the Brookings Institution’s 2018 report, Renewing the Water Workforce.
2.    Develop a plan to recruit and retain military veterans -- male, female, officer, enlisted and spouses.
3.    Use current social media platforms to publicize your organization’s success stories. Consider using Instagram and Snapchat in addition to Facebook to reach younger audiences.
4.    Develop and implement career path training programs starting in high school to educate and attract students who may not be planning to attend college.
5.    Create career pipelines rather than specific job descriptions to emphasize the message that water can be a life-long career.
6.    Recruit from groups that you may have overlooked. For example, one utility successfully recruited potential employees from a program serving victims of domestic abuse.
7.    Establish a training boot camp to recruit underserved and under recruited youth.
8.    Educate your community about opportunities in the water sector. Make presentations highlighting why your organization is a good choice for those seeking careers.

Here’s the main take-away: to be successful, your organization must be nimble, flexible, creative and inclusive to build a successful workforce for the future.

Stuart Karasik spent most of his career in the human resources/personnel arena. He has a PhD in education, a master’s in biology, and was the training program manager for the City of San Diego.