Member Spotlight - Kyla Jacobsen
June 21, 2018

Job and Employer: I retired in December 2017. I was the Utilities Director for the City of Elgin. With the city for almost 32 years, director for 12 and a half.

Educational background: BS in Chemistry/Physiology from Southern Illinois University, MS in Biochemistry from Northern Illinois University and a MS in Environmental Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Age: 59

Daily duties: I oversaw the water treatment plant operations, the laboratory, the meter shop, the distribution system, the sewer collection system, stormwater operations and capital projects. My day-to-day duties were more about personnel at that level. I had a great staff, and they knew their jobs. I was there to support their efforts and make sure that they had the resources to get their jobs done effectively.

What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on? My job is not terribly project driven, mostly operational. I would say that the event that “separated the men from the boys” is our drought of 2012 and the severe water quality challenges that were a result. The event lasted over three months. It required calm leadership and trusting in the team of operators to give suggestions and test theories. Two on the team ultimately quit (after the crisis was over), because they realized that they just couldn’t handle the stress knowing that they were responsible for drinking water for over 150,000 people.  

What is something unexpected you learned on the job? I learned that people know very little about where their water comes from, how it is treated and the regulations that are present both from an EPA and public health perspective.  

Why did you decide to go into the water field? I didn’t decide. I was out of grad school and just wanted to get a job, needed to take a break from academia. I answered an ad for a chemist for the city of Elgin. I had no idea it was in the water department laboratory. It was the best decision of my life to answer that ad. I now do a lot of outreach to school kids telling them what great opportunities are available in the water industry. I want people to decide to go into the water field.

What is your biggest accomplishment? I think that the development of the staff, creating a self-directed workforce and succession planning in the department was my biggest accomplishment. All of those staff initiatives helped me be able to retire early!

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? Being a woman. Sounds weird that in 2018 I would be saying that, but it’s true. My staff has always accepted me. It took a long time for my peers to accept a woman as a utility director. The general public still has issues -- a call would come in to the department and they would ask for the “person in charge.” The call would get transferred to me. The caller would then say that they wanted to “talk to the man in charge”. Happens more times than not. 

Toughest thing about your job? Being a baby-sitter. I love providing water. I love the science and engineering. I don’t like having to hold the hands of senior staff that don’t get the regulatory world that water lives in. I don’t like having to deal with the public when their “water bill is too high due to a leaky toilet.” I don’t like having to deal with personnel issues on the rare occasion that we get a staff member who is not a team player and not willing to do the right thing.  

How did you become a volunteer for AWWA?
 I’m a joiner and a doer. I don’t have the word no in my vocabulary. I immediately reached out to my section to see what I could get involved in. I have chaired several committees – Teleconference (wow, that dates me), Outreach, Water Utility Council, Diversity. I ran for office and worked my way through our section chairs. I was elected as section director and served on the Association board for a 3-year term. I have been on the Association Diversity and Member Inclusion Committee for two terms and am going to start my third (one term as a board member and two terms as a member-at-large). I served as the Operator Involvement Committee (OIC) chair for the Association for the last three years. My term ended at ACE. I have been appointed as a member of the Distribution and Plant Operations Division. I love to be involved.

How long have you been an AWWA member and what have you gotten from your membership? I became a member in 1987. I have gained friendships and networks all over the country. I love that I can pick up the phone and call someone I know from AWWA who has certainly faced an issue that I’m facing and have a conversation about that.  

What’s your motto in life?  Respect – give it and get it. 
Integrity - Your reputation and integrity are everything. Follow through on what you say you're going to do. Your credibility can only be built over time, and it is built from the history of your words and actions. - Maria Razumich-Zec

Hobbies and outside interests: I love to bicycle. I just get on my bike and see where I end up. Not uncommon for me to ride 20-30 miles a day. I love photography. 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a medical doctor. That’s all I could ever remember wanting to be. I graduated early from high school, took an accelerated undergraduate program, had great grades, good scores on my MCATs, and I never got in to med school.  

What is something that people would be surprised to know about you? They won’t be surprised; they will be shocked. I’m an introvert.