URGENT to women: Come on in, the water’s fine

Specialist bulletin: Operations specialist Sandra Smith describes the toughest job she's ever loved during a women's career day event at New York American Water in Merrick.

Long Island commercial, educational and nonprofit forces have united to encourage women to dive into relatively unexplored waters.

New York American Water, the Merrick-based subsidiary of New Jersey-based parent American Water Works Co., recently hosted a career-training day in conjunction with Nassau Community College and the Long Island chapter of the Workforce Development Institute, which supports job growth and retention across New York State through employee-development grants and industry/academia/government collaborations.

The career-day program was part of Utility Readiness for Gaining Employment for Non-Traditionals: Women, a larger effort to prepare women to assume more substantial roles in various utility industries.

According to principals behind URGENT: Women, it’s an area where female workers have been largely underrepresented – and that, according to Christopher Buday, American Water’s vice president of operations, is just bad business.

“We recognize the value in having a diversified workforce,” Buday said Monday. “This program shows women they have more employment options than just the traditional roles.

“It also helps train them to be prepared for work in the utility industry.”

Nineteen women participated in the early-April career-training day, with New York American Water engineer and Production Manager Richard Kern guiding a tour of NYAM’s iron-removal water-treatment plant in South Hempstead.

The tour, which included interactions with NYAM employees and plenty of Q&A opportunities, provided the 19 participants with a behind-the-curtain peek at a “vital piece of infrastructure” that processes some 4 million gallons of water per day, according to a statement from American Water – just part of a multistate system that maintains more than 1,200 miles of water mains, 8,800-plus fire hydrants and roughly 14,000 critical water valves.

“The company is always looking for the right person for the right job, regardless of gender,” Kern noted. “One of our top mechanics is a woman who has worked for New York American Water for more than 30 years.”

In addition to the treatment plant tour, participants met at NYAM’s Merrick headquarters with women working at the water company in various roles, including field and plant operations. The female employees “spoke candidly” about their nontraditional career paths, according to American Water, as well as the “advantages and disadvantages of being in the water-utility business.”

Noting roughly $49 million in system upgrades that NYAM has completed in recent years, operations specialist Sandra Smith told the career day visitors that she “helped make that happen,” including 10 miles of statewide water mains replaced over the past year – “all projects that crossed my desk,” Smith noted.

“This is my third career and I couldn’t be happier,” the specialist said.

Rosalie Drago: When need meets opportunity, the WDI is there.

Visitors also heard directly from women in field-service roles and NYAM’s Human Resources department – a range of potential careers that reinforced the nontraditional opportunities available to women in utility industries and served as a sort of shining beacon at the end of URGENT: Women’s tunnel, noted Edward Lancevich, an instructor in Nassau Community College’s Center for Workforce Development.

“The women were impressed,” Lancevich said. “They have had to accomplish a lot as part of the URGENT program, including passing tests and learning many technical skills.

“Through this program, Nassau Community College and its partners are providing a unique opportunity for women interested in nontraditional career paths.”

The URGENT: Women effort – which included 130 hours of classroom instruction, “employability workshops” and other field trips like the NYAM career day – is scheduled to culminate this week with a graduation ceremony at Nassau Community College featuring keynote remarks by NYAM President Carmen Tierno.

Rosalie Drago, the Workforce Development Institute’s Long Island regional director, said with the URGENT: Women pilot program wrapping up, a “consortium of utility companies” is already applying for WDI funds and otherwise exploring the notion of making the nontraditional-employment effort permanent.

“Over the past 12 months, there were more than 800 jobs open in the utilities sector on Long Island, 90 percent of which were with PSEG, National Grid and American Water,” Drago told Innovate LI. “The WDI funded the pilot program to support women in utilities because there’s a real demand for skilled workers in environments where people can actually make career advancements.

“When the leadership of those companies approached us to support an entry-level training program, all the senior staff at the table were earning over six figures – and they all had started out as meter readers,” Drago added. “It’s clear they’re committed to fostering success.”

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