High school grads: What can you do for your planet?

Proud path: A plethora of rewarding careers awaits high school graduates in critical environmental-protection fields, according to SUEZ North America CEO Eric Gernath.
By ERIC GERNATH //

As high school graduates embrace their first summer without the prospect of a September homeroom, now would be a good time to ask: Who believes so strongly in the future of the planet that they will dedicate their careers to environmental protection?

That career decision comes at a tipping point. Over the next 10 years, it’s projected that 37 percent of those employed in this crucial sector are expected to retire, leaving a significant shortage of qualified personnel to protect our water, clean our air and supervise the recycling of our resources.

A Brookings institute study found that in 2016, approximately 1.7 million Americans were involved in designing, constructing, operating and governing U.S. water infrastructure alone. That statistic crosses a number of disciplines, with some 212 specialty areas engaged in water management or protection.

Additional careers are found in sectors addressing air pollution, protection of our wetlands and bays and inventing the technology that will further ensure our planet’s survival.

Industry’s role in confronting climate change has enticed some graduates, but the numbers need to rise to adequately satisfy labor needs. This labor shortage suggests that the environmental-protection industry needs to consider how to effectively get in front of a generation, with what message. How do we communicate to these talented future leaders that they have an important role to play in the stewardship of water, one of our most valuable natural resources?

SUEZ is not alone in the arena of environmental-resource companies. There is an entire multibillion-dollar industry facing the challenge of recruitment. The center of our collective messaging needs to be the ability of connecting the issues of global climate change to a career that puts the individual in the center of environmental protection.

Eric Gernath: Earth to high school graduates.

We should not be afraid of suggesting to a high school graduate that one can either write a term paper on climate change or be part of the solution. The next generation of professionals should know that working for an environmental company that has made confronting climate change a foundation of its mission is just as noble and even more rewarding.

Equally important, one doesn’t necessarily need a four-year college degree to pursue a career in this field. There is a broad range of opportunities requiring differing skillsets.

We know this much: The global ecosystem is seriously compromised. An aging water infrastructure, growing populations, mountains of unrecycled refuse and increasing temperatures have put our access to fresh water in jeopardy. One-third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are already in distress, and the problem is expected to become more severe over the next decade.

Our industry needs to be unapologetic in asking graduating seniors whether they’re going to be part of the solution. Some may find the tech industry of Silicon Valley more attractive, but designing the next game app won’t bring freshwater to a developing society and a new texting meme won’t introduce smart-water metering – which can reduce water waste by as much as 15 percent – to an urban community.

Those looking for challenging work can find fulfillment in improving and creating new technologies in water reuse, desalination and water-systems management. Environmental solutions that require a passion for our planet need to come from an emerging generation with the ability to confront the issues caused by climate change.

The time to embrace that calling starts with a high school diploma in hand – and a recognition that the planet they can help save is their own.

Eric Gernath is chief executive officer of New Jersey-based SUEZ North America, which provides water, wastewater and other environmental services to millions of U.S. customers, including a public-private partnership to maintain Nassau County wastewater-treatment facilities.