Whether it be rivers and lakes or pumps and sewers, water systems are in urgent need of repair and restoration all around the country. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, by 2019, utilities were replacing between 1% and 4.8% of their pipelines per year on average. Though maintaining and working on such water systems are of grave importance, the water and wastewater industry is witnessing a harsh decline in workers throughout the nation. Texas water experts have expressed concerns about a coming wave of retirements and attrition accompanied by inadequate recruitment to the water workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that 8.2% of existing water operators will need to be replaced annually between 2016 and 2026.
To help bridge this gap, colleges such as Southern Methodist University have created a program and partnered with AECOM and other area consultants and utility owners to prepare and educate future leaders in the water industry. In fact, I was a part of this same program during my senior year at SMU. I have since served as a mentor for nine senior design/capstone project teams, guiding students through the same real-world experience I was given as a part of this program. Programs like SMU’s help promote the water industry as well as provide students with real-world, hands-on experience. Each project spans a full school year and includes a real-life problem with public entities that the students address with guidance from their mentor.
Projects have included transportation planning projects with Dallas County, wastewater treatment biological nutrient removal process improvements with the Trinity River Authority, and master planning of a sustainable community with a private client. Introducing students to tangible tasks, such as developing deliverables and presenting them to clients, maintaining a schedule, and receiving feedback from their mentor, will provide them with a springboard to succeed in their early careers.
After going through the program, I know these students feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, and that’s unique when you’re still a student. For one of my capstone projects, our team looked at creek flows in Grand Prairie, providing analysis and a final report. AECOM used the report to continue the project beyond just the capstone and prepared a final design for the city, which further demonstrated to myself and my teammates the importance and value our research provided to bring this project to life.
Our industry is not one that’s advertised widely, so we believe real-world experience is the best way to spark an interest in our field. Many students may come into the workforce with an engineering degree but are unsure of what they can do with it. The program helps them see the possibilities and enhances the overall educational experience.
Climate change, population growth, and aging infrastructure are driving us to adopt new ways of managing water. However, we need more water professionals to meet this growing need to devise solutions to relieve pressure on natural water sources and sewer systems to reduce flood risk, improve water quality and enhance the built environment. As business leaders and professionals, it is up to us to partner with area schools, local organizations, and nonprofits to introduce more students to our respective industries. My passion is centered around educating the next generation of water professionals to help bridge the widening gap between the water industry and young STEM professionals.
Though the water industry is predicted to face several challenges in the years to come, supporting programs and organizations that value STEM mentorship within the industry may be the spark needed to ignite change.
Stefanie Massey is a licensed professional engineer and certified project manager at AECOM.