Natalie Palugyai

Natalie Palugyai, the secretary of California's Labor and Workforce Development Agency, is pictured with West Valley Water District President Channing Hawkins and Western Municipal Water District Vice President Gracie Torres.

Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Natalie Palugyai as secretary of California's Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) in July, making her the first Latina to ever serve in this post.

Earlier this month, Palugyai visited the Inland Empire with the California Workforce Development Agency leadership in tow to learn more about High Road Training Partnership grant recipient, IEWorks, a regional water/wastewater workforce collaborative delivering equitable water/wastewater career pathways.

"I really want to recognize the hard work and partnerships that have come together to make this training program happen," Palugyai said in her opening remarks. "Let's use these opportunities to break down barriers and do things differently and be OK with testing those new approaches."

She visited West Valley Water District in Rialto to explore its operations at the Olivier P. Roemer Water Filtration Facility and to meet participants from IEWorks.

“We were thankful to host Secretary Palugyai and the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency to share our progress within the region on building equitable pathways to water/wastewater careers,” said IEWorks cofounder and West Valley Water District President Channing Hawkins. “Our goal with IEWorks is to create a unique model that involves collaboration amongst water/wastewater agencies, underrepresented communities, and harnessing our collective resources to ensure we create meaningful opportunities for Inland Empire families.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly one-third of the water sector will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. In the Inland Empire, experts project a total of about 835 openings in critical water industry occupations due to workers retiring or transferring to new careers.

IEWorks, which was created from an unprecedented partnership between seven local water agencies, works to address this expected shortage of skilled workers by creating a qualified pipeline of aspiring local water and wastewater professionals. IEWorks also partners with Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and BAYWORK, a consortium of Bay Area water and wastewater utilities, to leverage their successes and best practices. Through a $1 million state grant, the High Road Training Partnership assists IEWorks in recruiting and training 100 job seekers in underrepresented areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Today, 12 interns have participated in the program, with one being hired after their internship. Funding is utilized to provide wraparound services and alleviate burdens associated with job training and attending school, such as transportation vouchers, childcare, and providing livable wages to participants.

"The need to modernize and enhance our operations and infrastructure is fueled by the impact of the climate crisis," stated IEWorks co-founder and Western Municipal Water District Vice President Gracie Torres. "With forthcoming retirements, droughts, and a need to meet our region's water needs, we must address the upcoming gap by creating a qualified and prepared workforce that will be able to staff these facilities and lead us into the future of water/wastewater."

Representatives from San Bernardino Community College District, local water and utility districts, California Workforce Development Board President Dr. Angelo Farooq, and California State Senator Connie Leyva were amongst the guests in attendance and participated in a tour that highlighted the process which treats surface water from Lytle Creek and the State Water Project delivered through Lake Silverwood. The Olivier P. Roemer facility is scheduled to expand through a $25 million investment to increase capacity by 7.2 million gallons per day (MGD) to meet regional water demands, address water supply reliability, and support regional groundwater sustainability management efforts.

For participants interested and agencies looking to join, visit IEWorks.org to learn more or contact program manager Scott Goodell at scott@ieworks.org.

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