Having a pipeline of well-trained workers who can replace retiring employees and continue the mission has long been a priority for Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), and it uses its internship and fellowship programs to do just that. In this interview, EMWD’s Human Resources Manager Paula Allen and Senior Public Affairs Program Manager Roxanne Rountree tell Municipal Water Leader all about these important programs.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us a basic overview of EMWD’s apprenticeship and internship programs?
Paula Allen: EMWD’s internship program is designed for current college students. It’s a paid internship program generally offered between May and October each year. The opportunities can be within any department at EMWD, but we most often have internships available in our development services, engineering, finance, or information systems departments. We also have two apprenticeship programs in place, one in our electrical department and the other in our mechanical maintenance department. Both programs allow apprentices to work alongside a journey-level employee who can provide the apprentice with on-the-job training as well as classroom instruction.
Municipal Water Leader: When did EMWD decide to establish these programs?
Paula Allen: The internship program has been in place for more than 30 years. It has been restructured several times over the years, but the objective has always been to introduce students to jobs in the water industry. The internship is mutually beneficial, allowing EMWD employees to work with college students to complete a project that is relevant to the student’s coursework. The real-world projects complement the students’ coursework while also providing opportunities to sharpen soft skills, such as communication, meeting facilitation, and conducting presentations.
Roxanne Rountree: The apprenticeship program came about during succession planning, when we were considering anticipated retirements, and is intended to minimize gaps in recruiting and to retain highly qualified and skilled technicians. The electrical apprenticeship program was first implemented in 2017, and we added a second program in the mechanical maintenance department in 2019.
Municipal Water Leader: How long are the apprenticeship programs and what do they cover?
Paula Allen: The apprenticeship program requires a 4‑year commitment and includes supervised, structured, on-the-job training as well as classroom instruction. The apprentices are at-will employees of EMWD. Throughout the program, each apprentice learns skills under the supervision of a journey person. For the instructor-led classroom training, we partnered with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Apprentices’ classroom instruction includes exams and demonstrated proficiency assessments. After successfully completing the program, apprentices are reclassified as controls technicians in our electrical department or mechanical maintenance technicians in our mechanical maintenance department and are expected to maintain employment with EMWD for a minimum of 1 year.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us more about the college internship program?
Paula Allen: The college internship program is a 6‑month paid internship designed for current college students. Participants can work up to 20 hours a week. The required educational level and coursework are dependent on the needs of the department that is hosting the intern. Some project assignments are geared toward undergraduate students, while others require graduate-level coursework completion. Participants apply for the internship program that they are most interested in and that supports their educational and career goals. During the recruitment period, internship information and links to apply are found on the careers page of EMWD’s website. We do have partnerships with local colleges, but students from any college or university are welcome to apply.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the Youth Ecology Corps (YEC) program and how it differs from the other apprenticeship and internship programs?
Roxanne Rountree: The YEC program is held in partnership with the Riverside County Workforce Development Board. This program is for young adults, aged 18–24, who have a high school diploma but have not taken part in any type of formal tertiary education. The program began in 2013, and 217 young adults have participated to date. It is designed to help young adults explore water industry career paths through hands-on experience working in EMWD’s various departments. Each year, we sponsor approximately 50 YEC interns, who receive 12‑week work assignments in one of our departments. At a minimum, program participants can expect to carry out about 240 hours of work.
EMWD also participates in a couple of other programs, one being the CivicSpark Fellowship program. CivicSpark is an AmeriCorps Governor Initiative program that is designed to address water management issues in California. Participants serve 11‑month fellowships at EMWD after being screened through a highly competitive national application process. Once they are vetted, we interview candidates and select those who are best suited for various projects we have. Fellows have worked on projects dealing with public affairs, water resources, and conservation, as well as on research, planning, and implementation projects. Candidates are required to have a bachelor’s degree and to commit to the hours that they sign up for with the host agency. Since partnering with the program in 2016, EMWD has hosted six fellows.
Another program EMWD participates in is the Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG) Public Service Fellowship program. This is a professional development opportunity designed to provide undergraduates, recent graduates, and graduate students hands-on experience in local, regional, and special-district public agencies throughout western Riverside County. The WRCOG fellowship is an opportunity for participants to prepare for full-time employment in local government careers that enrich the community. Students are interviewed by EMWD staff, and once selected, must commit to working 20–30 hours a week until they have worked 960 hours in total. Since partnering with the program in 2017, EMWD has hosted three WRCOG fellows.
Municipal Water Leader: What have the results of the programs been, and how have they helped address the issue of workforce development?
Roxanne Rountree: EMWD is committed to being the employer of choice in attracting and retaining high-performing employees. These programs help engage members of the very communities we serve, allowing them to be prepared to apply for them when the time comes. EMWD’s internship, apprenticeship, and fellowship programs show local young professionals what the water and wastewater industry has to offer. Often, the feedback we hear from our interns is that they never knew that working for a water utility was a possibility. Not only do these programs allow EMWD to provide them with real-world learning opportunities, but they also provide them inspiration for continuing their education in the industry.
Paula Allen: At the conclusion of each internship program, the participants share their experiences and make a presentation on the projects they’ve worked on. Many say that the internship allowed them to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-life situations. Comments like those let us know that we are meeting the important program goal of introducing students and potential future employees to the water industry. In fact, we have had several interns return to EMWD after completing their educations to fill full-time positions at a variety of levels within the organization, including the executive management level. The apprenticeship programs have also helped to ensure that we have people in place with the skills needed to fill positions in our electrical and mechanical maintenance departments. For example, two apprentices in our electrical program recently completed the program and have advanced to being control technicians.
Municipal Water Leader: What advice do you have for other agencies that may be interested in establishing apprenticeship and internship programs?
Paula Allen: If you’re considering implementing a new apprenticeship or internship program, I would recommend starting off small and making adjustments to the program as needed. Listening to the challenges and suggestions of the participants and reevaluating the program each year will help it improve. A successful program requires the right participants, but also the right organizational staff to mentor participants. The guidance and support that EMWD staff provide to apprentices and interns are important to the success of the program.
Roxanne Rountree: For the young adult programs, it is important for agencies to know that partnership opportunities are out there. I would encourage them to reach out to their local government and workforce development agencies to see if there is the potential for partnerships to assist young adults in helping them along their career path.