YH2O Youth Mentorship Program Provides Fresh Talent to Baltimore’s Water Workforce

March 6, 2020

Learning Opps

Since launching in 2015, an innovative apprenticeship program developed by the Chesapeake Water Environment Association (CWEA) and the Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) has equipped nearly 100 young adults with the skills they need to become successful water professionals.

The YH2O Youth Mentorship Program is an initiative of the Chesapeake Water Environment Association and the Baltimore municipal government. Each year, the program pairs young adults from underrepresented demographic groups with experienced mentors in the water sector. Over 6 months, participants gain hands-on exposure to water-sector work, culminating in a career fair at which 97% of graduates find full-time work. Image courtesy of Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development

Baltimore’s YH2O Youth Mentorship Program is an intensive, 6-month course for high-school educated Baltimore residents between the ages of 18 and 24. It seeks to serve minorities and underrepresented demographic groups who are searching for entry-level jobs that lead to fruitful careers. In addition to teaching basic career fundamentals, such as how to succeed in job interviews, the course offers each participant a full suite of water sector-specific technical exposure. This includes site visits, hands-on experiences, and even one-on-one mentorship from water sector veterans.

The YH2O program already has attracted several accolades. The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) recognized the effort with a 2018 WEF Award for Public Communication and Outreach. In December 2019, the program was honored as one of 18 winners of Amazon Web Services’ (AWS; Seattle, Wash.) annual City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge, which focuses on groundbreaking ideas that use cloud computing to improve lives. Award funding from AWS will enable the program to expand, offering new training modules that introduce participants to emerging information technology solutions in the water sector and reach more job-seekers, according to AWS’ citation.

“Historically, the classes have been 15 participants,” YH2O program administrator Kraig Moodie said during an interview with WEF’s Words on Water podcast. “This year, due to the success of the program, we’re going up from 15 to 25.”

Filling Vacancies While Providing Opportunity

The origins of the YH2O program date back to 2014, when Baltimore hosted the WEF Collection Systems Conference, recalled conference chair and CWEA member John Fletcher. Serving as co-chair was Rudy Chow, who later that year would become Baltimore DPW director. Ensuring a robust water workforce in Baltimore was a frequent topic of conversation at that conference, Fletcher said.

At an annual job fair, YH2O participants come face-to-face with approximately 650 employers in the Baltimore region. Successful graduates become water resource recovery facility operators, help maintain water infrastructure, perform communications functions, work in laboratories, and work in nearly every other segment of the water profession. Image courtesy of Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development

“One of the things Rudy mentioned several times was his frustration with the fact that at any given time, he’d have two or three hundred open jobs that he couldn’t fill,” Fletcher said.

Around the same time, Fletcher heard from a colleague that roughly 100,000 young adults in Baltimore were entering the workforce each year with little or no career prospects.

“I had one of those lightbulb moments,” he said.

Fletcher and Chow spent the next 6 months meeting with various Baltimore city agencies and economic development groups, laying the groundwork for an innovative workforce development program that would expose underrepresented jobseekers to opportunities in the water sector. During a meeting with the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, city officials saw an opportunity to supplement their existing workforce programs that target the same populations and decided to support the proposal. The YH2O program welcomed its first class of participants just 6 weeks later.

“This was a true partnership between the City of Baltimore and the CWEA,” Fletcher said.

A Comprehensive Water Sector Education

Participants progress through the YH2O program in three distinct phases.

In the first phase, which lasts 8 weeks, students learn general lessons to help them become more employable. The curriculum includes, for example, job interview techniques and professional communication strategies. They also are paired with an experienced water professional who volunteers their time as a mentor for those entering the workforce. Today, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Chesapeake aids in acclimating these volunteer mentors, developing an original curriculum targeted toward young adults rather than children, Fletcher described.

The YH2O Youth Mentorship Program recently won the 2019 City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge hosted by Amazon Web Services (Seattle, Wash.). Winning the challenge, which recognizes new ideas that capitalize on cloud computing to improve lives, will enable the program to add new training courses teaching information technology applications for the water sector. Image courtesy of Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development

The second phase involves 10 weeks of unpaid, part-time work. During this phase, participants engage with the technical aspects of the water and wastewater profession for the first time. Experiences might include job tours and visits to water resource recovery facilities, pump stations, laboratories as well as basic fieldwork and maintenance activities.

When students reach the third phase, they are enrolled in a specialized track of Baltimore City’s pre-existing YouthWorks program. Each year, YouthWorks connects young jobseekers with paid summer opportunities at all levels of the municipal government, culminating in a job fair where participants can engage and interview with approximately 650 businesses, utilities, and organizations in the region.

97% of YouthWorks graduates who had first completed the YH2O program found full-time work in the water sector, Fletcher said. 85% of all YH2O alumni since 2015 are still working in the sector. These graduates are not only facility operators, Fletcher said, but also work in the legal, business, and communications-related segments of utilities and public works departments.

“We think public works and we think water and sewer and going out in the field,” Fletcher said. “But for every person that works in the field, there’s 50 who work behind the scenes. Wherever your skills prove to rise to the top, that’s what we’re going to help direct you toward within the organization you end up with.”

Some YH2O graduates have gone onto earn exceptional accolades. Raquel Robbins, a 2015 YH2O graduate, was selected as the 2018-2019 Baltimore DPW Employee of the Year out of approximately 2,500 candidates.

“We have so many success stories like that,” Fletcher said. “Within a year or two, these people become true professionals working for the City of Baltimore or for whoever else. It’s so rewarding to walk into [the main Baltimore DPW facility], see someone working there, and know that they came through this program.”

Listen to Words on Water #124 for more information about the YH2O Youth Mentorship Program.

— Justin JacquesWEF Highlights

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