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Building the Water Workforce of the Future

#Featured Articles,
#Workforce
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09/28/22
Mark McDonough, President of New Jersey American Water

Photo description: 2022 Water UP! participants. Photo credit: New Jersey American Water


After two years of a global pandemic, the resulting economic and unemployment crises, and with the continued economic uncertainty and unsettled jobs market, it’s understandable if New Jersey’s young people feel uncertain about the future. Now more than ever, our youth need to be given hope and stability.

Since 2015, New Jersey American Water and Hopeworks have partnered on impactful workforce development programs that is a win-win for everyone involved. This innovative program opens doors for young people from underserved communities to launch stable, good-paying careers in the water and wastewater industry, and helps the industry to build a pipeline of talent to address the retirement boom on the horizon.

I am proud to say the Hopeworks Geographic Information Systems (GIS) internship program has trained and secured employment for 85 young adults in Geographic Information Systems, an advanced mapping technology that helps organizations visualize, analyze and interpret data. This program has proved to be successful beyond our expectations with a staggering 90% of the interns graduating, completing college, and starting permanent careers in the industry. 

New Jersey American Water has extended employment offers to several alumni over the years, including Ashley Pena and Chris Newbill. Other program alumni have gone on to work for other utilities, including Acasha Mann and Fran Dixon, who both recently accepted offers from the Philadelphia Water Department. 

Building on the success of the Hopeworks program, New Jersey American Water in 2021 launched its first Water UP! Program, in partnership with Hopeworks, APEX Solutions Group, and Jingoli Construction. 

In this paid, 11-week training program, participants learned the skills to obtain entry-level positions in the water utility industry. The curriculum spans operations, safety, customer service, and more. This program was successfully implemented in Camden and resulted in four of the eight participants being offered jobs with New Jersey American Water, including Courtney Wakefield. The next Water UP! cohort is taking place in Plainfield in the fall of 2022, in partnership with APEX Solutions Group, the City of Plainfield and Superior Court of NJ’s Probation Division. 

Creating pathways to employment for youth in Camden and other underserved communities in New Jersey is critical. For example, Camden, Paterson, Newark, East Orange and Atlantic City all had unemployment rates at least two-thirds higher than the state rate as of May 2022.¹ A career in public utilities can provide our young people with good-paying jobs in an essential field that needs workers. According to the New Jersey Department of Labor, the average salary in the state’s utility industry is almost 40% higher than the overall average salary.² 

And the field is growing. Employment in the transportation, warehousing and utilities industries in New Jersey increased by nearly 23,000 jobs from May 2021 to May 2022.³ Moreover, America’s workforce is aging, and the utilities industry is no exception. As this skilled workforce becomes eligible for retirement, the exodus will unlock opportunities for young workers to grow into rewarding careers. This is a critical moment — and an important opportunity — to strengthen our continued commitment to support underserved communities and diversify our workforce as we continue to build it.

Through programs like the Hopeworks GIS internships and Water UP!, New Jersey American Water is creating an impactful and successful blueprint for how utilities can invest in both New Jersey’s communities and the future of their industries by creating pipelines for the next generation of talent. I have seen it first-hand. 

Participants acquire not only sophisticated data systems skills, but career readiness skills as well, which will benefit them throughout their professional lives. Upon their graduation, participants are better prepared to succeed in today’s workplace, having already obtained real-world work experience. It is our hope that others in the industry will follow our lead.

Industry has both the ability and the responsibility to help uplift the communities it serves. Supporting youth workforce development across the state can help break intergenerational cycles of poverty, particularly in historically underserved areas.

I’m honored to head up a company like New Jersey American Water as we lead by example. We have invested over $1 million through the partnership with Hopeworks’ GIS program to prepare young people for the technical careers of tomorrow. With additional support and investment, train-to-hire programs like Hopeworks and Water UP! could extend their impact even further.

New Jersey’s water infrastructure drives its economy, and New Jersey American Water is making sure that the workforce supporting it continues to be the best in the industry. When we invest in the people to sustain this infrastructure, we help ensure a healthier and more prosperous future for everyone.

Jersey Water Works (JWW) members are encouraged to share information about their own challenges and opportunities related to water workforce. Reach out to Paula Figueroa-Vega, Program Manager, for more information about the JWW Water Workforce Taskforce.


¹ https://www.nj.gov/labor/labormarketinformation/employment-wages/unemployment-rates-labor-force-estimates/index.shtml

² https://www.nj.gov/labor/labormarketinformation/employment-wages/occupational-statistics/

³ Unadjusted Statewide Nonagricultural Wage & Salary Employment. https://www.nj.gov/labor/labormarketinformation/employment-wages/nonfarm-statistics/index.shtml

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