Publisher’s Note: This article in slightly different form appeared in a recent electronic newsletter (“Section Direction”) produced by the American Water Works Association for the officers and top volunteers of its Sections.
What is the biggest human resources problem facing the water and wastewater communities these days? A large cohort of the workforce is retiring. The first baby boomers reached 65 last year. Many local and state government retirement programs (for the moment) allow early retirement and a lot of folks have already left the water workforce. How can we turn this problem into an asset? I have a suggestion that every AWWA Section can benefit from.
Where do the retired members of the American Water Works Association or any other professional organization go? Many of them drop their membership if they are trying to economize (There are reduced rates for retirees—check it out). They cannot afford to go to conferences. A few have achieved Life Member status (30 years of membership and age 65), but no one asks them to help out anymore with Section activities. In truth, some volunteer at AWWA to help out at conferences and some teach in the Section continuing education program. But these dedicated people are only a small fraction of the retirees.
What do retirees do? National studies have shown that besides not planning for the financial part of retirement, the vast majority of retirees have not planned how they will spend their time. How much golf can a person play? How many paperback novels can a person read? (After reading hundreds of these, don’t they all seem the same?) Gardening is great and playing with grandchildren is wonderful, but can these activities fill a day? Sure, some people are volunteering their time (for example, Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity), but many retired people find themselves stuck in front of a TV for far too long during a typical day.
History is one thing that retirees do get interested in–history of the Civil War, sports cars, their town, the USA, the world, etc. Sometimes the interest in history motivates retirees to rent an RV and hit the Patriot Trail in New England or other similar unguided tours into U.S. history. The interest in family history—genealogy—has skyrocketed recently. Several recent surveys have estimated that more than 80% of American adults are interested in learning more about their family histories. If you log onto ancestry.com, you will be transported into a fascinating new world, but be advised—it can become addictive. For older folks, the interest in history is understandable. After three score and five years, we start to see the world from a broader perspective, and we start asking questions, such as: Why? How did that happen? Who was responsible for that? What does it mean? Who influenced that person?
AWWA Sections can tap this rapidly growing membership category (and keep retiring members from leaving the organization) by promoting an interest in water history. Water history? You say you don’t know anything about water history? I know that is not true. If you have worked 20, 30, 40 years in the water business, you have lived water history, and in some cases, you made water history. One of the most entertaining things I used to do at a retirement party for any long-time employee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was sit with the old-timers and listen to their stories of the early days. Jane Krafka (a friend from MWDSC) called it “rebuilding the aqueduct”—all the way from the Colorado River to Lake Mathews.
So how does a Section get its older members to become more interested in the section and to leverage the link with water history? One option is to form a Retired Professionals Committee. The committee could take on a number of projects. At the California-Nevada Section there is a fairly large archive of old photos and documents. Members could help organize such collections and add materials to them. I am sure that there are a bunch of other older members who have interesting papers and books that could add to a section archive.
The New Jersey Section is the only one that I am aware of that has a Retired Professionals Committee. They have been active in video taping retired members of AWWA for their Living History project. That is another worthy activity. I wish I had oral history videos of Gene Bowers and Hal Pearson who preceded me at Metropolitan. Both of them went back to the first days of water production by the District. I participated in one of the New Jersey Section history tapings and the facilities were very professional. The have partnered with a high school in the northern part of the state, so that they can use the studio, camera equipment and trained audio and video technicians (high school students).
A session of the annual Section conference could be devoted to speakers relating important historical happenings in the member water utilities, companies and consulting firms.
Finally, the Retired Professionals Committee could be paired with the Young Professionals Committee in a section. The old retired gals and guys could act as mentors to the younger folks. I thought about getting involved with a YP scavenger hunt at a CA NV Section meeting a few years ago, but I decided not to go because I was not sure that it would be appropriate. Heather Collins was a bit annoyed with me, but that was how I felt. If there was a organized link between the two committees, all of the mixed signals would be removed.
How did I develop and interest in water history? I have always been interested in history. In my high school library one day, I ran across a copy of The Colditz Story, which was the tale of an escape from a WWII prisoner of war camp. Ever since, I have read hundreds of books and watched dozens of films about the history of that conflict. I am also married to an art historian who specializes in 17th century Baroque painting. As a result, I have been in every obscure Baroque church in Rome, and I have seen some of the most spectacular art in the world.
In 2005, Marcia Lacey (the editor of the Journal American Water Works Association) asked me to write a history of disinfection, which set me on the path to discover more about water history. Since then, I have written a book, The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, which will be published by AWWA in spring 2013. I started blogging about water history topics on this blog (safedrinkingwaterdotcom) and I started another blog called This Day in Water History. After I kept getting encouragement from water professionals on the Linkedin business networking site, I started a group called, you guessed it, Water History. All of these activities started with an email on November 30, 2005. It’s funny where life leads us.
I offer the above as suggestions to turn an aging water professional population into a winner for AWWA sections. Try one or more of these ideas and let me know how it works out. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Linkedin, Pinterest…never mind. Water history has led me into the depths and bowels of social media.