Follow the Money

Sept. 1, 2007
It’s an old journalistic adage: follow the money - if you want to find out why something happens.

by Carlos David Mogollón

It’s an old journalistic adage: follow the money - if you want to find out why something happens. I’m talking in this case not about political shenanigans, but encouraging people to pursue careers in water and wastewater systems engineering.

A lack of students doing just that is pointed out in this issue by Jamal Shamas, a URS Corp. executive and Industrial Waste Committee chairman for the Water Environment Federation interviewed for our Executive Corner column. And yet, such careers - which may seem less glamorous - promise to be fruitful in terms of potential adventure worldwide, whether designing condensate polishing systems for a petrochemical refinery in Houston, TX, damaged by Hurricane Rita, reconstruction of water and wastewater infrastructure in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, or co-location of a $15 billion power generation/desalination facility in Dubai announced in May.

They also can be fruitful financially, as pointed out in a recent article by Glen W. Spielbauer, “Skilled Worker Shortage: Technicians in Industrial Water Control,” which you can find on our website. It was included in a recent Water & Wastewater Report e-newsletter put out by our publisher, PennWell Water Group, a unit of PennWell Corp. In his article, Spielbauer references statistics that, a dozen years ago, technicians in chemical process and semiconductor industries often earned a starting salary of over $30,000 with only a two-year degree - and experienced technicians made more than $50,000 a year. Today, the mean salary for chemical process technicians is over $40,000 and, for semiconductor processors, it’s about $35,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chemical engineers, meanwhile, earn a mean salary of $81,600, environmental engineers earn $72,590 and industrial engineers earn $70,630. Petroleum engineers top them all at $101,620. Big numbers.

On the other hand, computer related jobs - a field my father, the mechanical engineer (mean salary: $75,580), wanted me to get into - ranged largely between $44,350 and $96,440. I passed on engineering at the University of Chicago to study journalism at Indiana University (editors mean salary: $53,220). It’s been a fulfilling, if not necessarily as lucrative, career so far.

In any case, with these wage figures for engineers, it should be easier to attract students into sciences and engineering careers. Show them the numbers, right? Well, not really. It requires more encouragement, unfortunately. One way many industries have done this is via scholarships. When I googled “water scholarships,” I got over 500 entries. Of the top 15 entries, half were non-U.S. (four from Australia*), four were association sponsored, three had direct corporate sponsors, one U.S. program had no funds (the first), and two were for agriculture or irrigation related studies. We can do better than that.

Not only should every company or association in this industry sponsor scholarships, but they should get involved with local schools to promote awareness and enhance knowledge of water and wastewater quality issues. If this is so an important a resource that conflict over it in this century is likely to dwarf that over oil, as it’s been said, then we owe it to this next generation to give them the tools to deal with these issues responsibly and intelligently to avoid those conflicts as much as possible.

That was a point made by Dr. Peter Gleick, , a hydrologist and climate specialist who heads the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment & Security and serves as editor of The World’s Water: A Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, speaking at a recent Southwest regional water event I attended in Tucson, AZ.

* Note: An Industrial WaterWorld webcast to air Nov. 29 on membrane use for industrial wastewater recycling focuses on the Gippsland Water Factory, in Victoria, Australia, near Brisbane. See our website for details.

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