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Environmental Professional Development Academy Builds Tomorrow’s New Jersey Utility Leaders

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10/26/22

After completing the Environmental Professional Development Academy, cohort members are honored at the AEA annual awards luncheon. Here, members of the first EPDA cohort stand, holding their certificates, with Brian Valentino (far R), EPDA director/executive director at Western Monmouth Utilities Authority, and Michael Ruppel, who was at the time of the photo executive director of South Monmouth Regional Sewerage Authority. Although he has since retired, he still manages the EPDA operations track. Photo credit: NJ Association of Environmental Authorities.


Environmental Professional Development Academy Builds Tomorrow’s New Jersey Utility Leaders

Soon after Brian Valentino became executive director (ED) at Western Monmouth Utilities Authority (WMUA), he noticed his staff worked in “silos.” Plant workers rarely entered the administrative offices. Administrative staff rarely (or in one or two cases never) visited the treatment plant. While this culture had evolved unintentionally, it was, Valentino knew, problematic. He began to design a program to address this silo phenomenon with WMUA staff. 

At the same time, then-President of the Association of Environmental Authorities (AEA) and South Monmouth Regional Sewerage Authority ED Michael Ruppel was concerned about succession planning, as were many of his colleagues. Many utility executives were nearing retirement. Vacancies were popping up across New Jersey; replacing licensed and unlicensed staff was becoming a challenge. To complicate things further, earning a water and/or a wastewater license required study, several years of hands-on experience, and passing a state-mandated exam.  Without a doubt, the licensure requirements are key and essential to the efficient operation of the Treatment Works themselves, but Ruppel, Valentino, and others in AEA leadership knew they do not provide the requisite insight necessary for those thrust into middle and upper management roles. A more focused approach to developing management skills became a goal of Ruppel and, under his leadership, AEA.

Ruppel, Valentino, and other AEA colleagues discussed these concerns, Valentino shared his own training plans, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The outcome was the Environmental Professional Development Academy (EPDA). Since EPDA kicked off as a pilot program co-sponsored by WMUA and AEA in 2016, more than 100 people from AEA’s member organizations have benefitted from the program. For the 2022–23 year, another 25 individuals have begun the four-track program.  

Several elements of EPDA make it unique. First, EPDA involves a comprehensive curriculum. EPDA classes cover purely technical skills less often than typical water/sewer sector conference sessions and workshops. At EPDA, Valentino, Ruppel, and other instructors follow a curriculum that includes topics such as critical thinking, leadership, navigating local politics, conflict resolution, and municipal/authority budget planning. 

A second element that distinguishes EPDA is its unique approach to cross-training. Whether they are executive directors, commissioners, treatment plant operators, collection system operators, administrative support staff, compliance/safety officers, or landfill workers, EPDA enrollees form a cohort; together, they complete the same four program tracks: operations, administration, finance, and human resources. All EPDA enrollees receive tours of every kind of facility AEA members manage: landfills, recycling centers, wastewater treatment plant, collection (sewer) and distribution (water) systems, water storage, and drinking water treatment plants. 

Another element of the EPDA success is its approach to team building. Each EPDA cohort meets for one full day, each week for the four to six weeks of each track. To build interpersonal skills, the cohort members often work in teams on classroom assignments involving problem-solving and complete capstone projects as an assessment activity. In this program, cohort members learn that helping one another is an element of both personal and organizational success. Valentino often reminds each cohort to “leave the ladder down” for the next person, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and helping one another.  

EPDA students form strong relationships that continue beyond Track 4. The fact that Valentino was an Eagle Scout might have influenced the decision to have EPDA enrollees wear “uniforms.” To create a shared identity for each track, participants wear a different colored shirt (yellow, red, green, or blue) that is emblazoned with an EPDA logo. When they complete EPDA, they earn a purple shirt and a certificate, which are handed out at the annual AEA recognition luncheon in March. Testimony of the EPDA’s success has become clear as graduates have grown and advanced in their respective careers. Employers are eager to send additional staff members each year.

Valentino and Ruppel were instrumental in bringing the EPDA to AEA members. Valentino is its director, and he designed the curriculum. Valentino manages the administration track, and Ruppel, retired now, manages the operations track. But the continued success of EPD has been the work of many.  Bernie Bujack, CFO at South Monmouth RSA, manages the finance track, and Apryl Roach, of Franklin Township SA, manages the HR track. AEA executive director Peggy Gallos often presents as well. The program’s day-to-day administrator (and self-identified “EPDA mother hen”) is Karen Burris, AEA office manager. Every track features many guest speakers. Executive directors, CFOs, superintendent, IT managers, attorneys, engineers, and other professionals, most of whom are from AEA-member organizations, share their expertise. Officials from the Water Bank, the NJDEP, and the NJDCA are also frequent presenters. EPDA graduates often go on to teach subsequent cohorts. 

To complement the EPDA, the association established a mentoring program that is coordinated by Rina Dalal, an engineer with long-time AEA-member organization, CDM Smith. EPDA enrollees are encouraged to review the profiles of volunteer mentors, who are executive directors, and other experienced professionals. The students choose a mentor. Once paired, the EPDA student and the mentor meet informally on their own schedule. 

The EPDA has earned recognition in many quarters. Valentino and the WMUA have been recognized for their roles in the creation of the EPDA,  and won a One Water Award from Jersey Water Works in 2019. The WMUA was also  named a National Honoree for the U.S. EPA Environmental Achievement Awards and the EPA Technology Innovation Award. EPA has also named WMUA a “Water Resources Utility of the Future Today“ for its role in development of EPDA. 

Another aspect of EPDA that cannot be undervalued, one that may be the greatest accomplishment of the program, is its success at instilling what might be called “sense of mission.”  Utility workers, especially those who work in sewer systems, are not always well-valued. People have no idea what it takes to bring them their clean water and drinking water. Sewer workers, in particular, can be subject to what Gallos calls “the giggle factor,” but the giggle factor is not really funny. Many well-intentioned people who are involved in environmental work and water quality advocacy express themselves in a manner that suggests they view sewer plants and the people who run them as polluters. Wastewater workers sometimes undervalue themselves, so EPDA endeavors to remind them that they are public servants who perform an essential and valuable public service. 

AEA is proud to have implemented this program. It has not only provided an invaluable service to AEA member organizations, it has strengthened the association too. Many EPDA graduates have become active in AEA committees and its board. With EPDA, AEA has created a venue where, through hard work and commitment, New Jersey’s public sector water, wastewater and solid waste professionals continue to set the bar high for others to aspire to in serving the public and the environment.EPDA is open to workers in AEA-member organizations, which include both authorities and other public agencies that deliver water/wastewater/solid waste service in N.J. Staff from non-member organizations (including New Jersey municipal public works departments that do water or sewer work, NJ municipal utilities staff, or those who work for any NJ public agency involved with environmental work) may enroll in EPDA as well. For more information, email info@aeanj.org or call 609-584-1877. 

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