By: Julia Hillengas, Executive Director, PowerCorpsPHL
Our new year starts with continued uncertainty in the economy and job availability, a sense of immediacy on the accelerating fallout of climate change, and mass exposure of our country’s deep, generations-long vulnerability—racial and social inequity that, unaddressed, will crumble our society’s foundations.
And yet, I feel hope. I see not just a dream, but real, ongoing action that works to counter our most pressing challenges and shows us what we can be. These actions are being led by both long-time and emerging leaders in the public and private sector. Where?
Think of a company that delivers vital goods to every resident in an instant. Think of a company that is actively investing in mitigating climate change. Think of a company that starts employees who don’t have college degrees above a living wage and is open to people from a variety of backgrounds. Think of a company that is located in every major city, has a presence in small towns, and is at lower risk of automation and outsourcing. Who comes to mind?
Amazon? Nope. Patagonia? Starbucks? UPS? Am I pulling your leg?
No. These companies exist across the nation and are, or easily could be within a year, your local water utility and other water-industry companies.
Most of our cities and many of our communities are beset by ecological stress—water pollution from human-made waste, worsening air quality and increasing heat from decreased tree canopies—and an overloaded water infrastructure that negatively impacts our homes, green spaces, and waterways. Concurrently, unemployment, poverty, health disparities, and greater exposure to environmental hazards were concentrated in predominately poor and minority neighborhoods pre-pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 have only furthered the inequity. COVID-related unemployment is concentrated among workers of color and workers with less formal education. COVID-19 deaths disproportionately impact Black communities. It’s a lot. It can feel overwhelming. Yet, the answer is not to separate the issues and make incremental progress on each. The solution lies in addressing them all together and head-on. Braid resources, forge new partnerships, think across disciplines and roles.
Less than ten years ago, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), like most city utilities, operated a traditional, aging, fresh, and wastewater system. Like its pipes, its workforce was graying. Critical positions remained vacant with projected retirements increasing over the next five years. On top of that PWD had just entered a consent decree to address water pollution exacerbated by its combined sewer overflow and overloaded infrastructure. In that moment and over the years that followed, PWD made three key decisions:
- Implement green infrastructure, a cost-savings solution with tremendous co-benefits and multiple dimensions to its return on investment
- Restart and reimagine its apprenticeship program, creating a flexible mechanism paired with civil service structure that enables the creation of modern, adaptive, and responsive initiatives to address its human capital needs
- Partner, as an investor and co-developer, with PowerCorpsPHL, an emerging workforce development initiative aimed at addressing equity and economic opportunity for Philadelphia’s most overlooked young people to source PWD’s talent
Seeded by PWD, the City of Philadelphia, and AmeriCorps, PowerCorpsPHL mixes local, state, federal, and private dollars across environmental, labor, public safety, and human services portfolios. PowerCorpsPHL, operated by an independent non-profit, EducationWorks, recruits young people who have struggled on the traditional pathways to college and careers, works with PWD and other employers to design training, and provides supportive services and paid work experiences on public-benefit projects to prepare its graduates for employment in infrastructure, utilities, energy, and youth work.
PWD now employs close to 30 PowerCorpsPHL alumni in skilled trades, inlet cleaning, green stormwater operations, and surveying divisions. For example, meet Juan.
Juan spent most of his teenage and college years incarcerated for offenses related to the lack of employment and opportunities available to young men from his neighborhood. Juan came to PowerCorpsPHL, moved into a training position at one of PWD’s water treatment facilities, earned an apprenticeship position in electrical trades at that facility, and now, is a 5-plus year electrician at PWD with opportunities to advance his career and mentor new apprentices.
Or Aaron, a bright, natural leader, who was introduced to green infrastructure at PowerCorpsPHL and then proceeded to rise through the ranks from apprentice to supervisor in the Green Stormwater Operation division, got married, bought a home, and had two children along the way. Before PowerCorpsPHL, he kept getting rejected from low-wage employment because of his background.
PWD’s leadership by example set the tone for the local private sector. PowerCorpsPHL alumni are employees and emerging leaders at a host of PWD subcontractors. At AKRF, Braheem leads the Philadelphia office’s subsurface maintenance operations and is a co-worker with about a dozen other PowerCorpsPHL alumni. At Rodriguez Consulting, Cashmir, after completing specialized training in GIS and surveying taught by Rodriguez Consulting and co-developed with PowerCorpsPHL, is now employed as an engineering aide along with two other alumni.
This is now business as usual in Philadelphia. It’s happening in Camden, NJ. It’s starting in Buffalo. Throughout the nation, the seeds have already been sprinkled, and many have already sprouted. Water industry jobs offer an above living wage, career pathways, job security, and purpose to a full range of people with various educational backgrounds. Water industry positions offer opportunities and second chances to people who may have struggled or made mistakes due to the circumstances of poverty and inequity. Yet, there are hard-to-fill vacancies while unemployment is high. Green infrastructure mitigates runoff and lessens the load on our systems, adds vegetation back into our urban landscapes, sparks the regional economy, invites residents to understand water and their environment, and has the power to contribute to the health and well-being of our most neglected communities. Take those two assets—accessible good jobs and reinvestment in green—and add an understanding of equity. When we connect all the dots with intention, investment, and coordination, the water industry can, and does, lead the way on equity while restoring our country’s environment, economy, and our human spirit.
Julia Hillengas, Co-Founder & Executive Director, PowerCorpsPHL. Since co-founding PowerCorpsPHL in 2013, Julia has developed partnerships and pathways to success with and for young people most affected by our systemic failures. She continues to refine the PowerCorpsPHL model, expand its impact, and work as a bridge-builder between young people and economic opportunities. Prior to PowerCorpsPHL, Julia served as the Deputy Service Officer for Mayor Nutter’s Office of Civic Engagement & Volunteer Service. She also previously served as a SERVE Philadelphia AmeriCorps VISTA and then as a staff member within the Mayor’s Office of Education, where she coordinated and grew an initiative to engage parents and families as partners in their children’s education. Born and raised in Philly, Julia has worked for over 15 years as an educator, coach, and community organizer. Julia holds a Master’s Degree in Education from Temple University, was named a White House Champion of Change in 2015, an Echoing Green Finalist in 2016, and was part of the inaugural, global cohort of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Social Impact Strategy’s Executive Program.
Follow @PowerCorpsPHL and connect with Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org