Arlington Water Utilities Offers Opportunities for Foster Youth
By Traci Peterson, Arlington Water Utilities
Posted on August 09, 2019, August 09, 2019

Ryder Coffman is 20 years old and started interning at the water department this spring as the first participant in the new program. The City of Arlington and Fort Worth-based ACH Child and Family Services have teamed up with the Texas Workforce Commission to offer young people transitioning out of foster care the opportunity to earn on-the-job training that could lead to a career in the water utilities industry.

Through the new partnership with Arlington Water Utilities, the Texas Workforce Commission will fund internships for young people who live in the ACH facility in Fort Worth and are enrolled in transitional services for those “aging-out” of foster care. The youth will work as meter readers and in other water operations functions, with the goal of earning certification as a water operator from the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ).

With many lacking a family support system, entering the workforce and adjusting to adult life can be difficult for young adults coming out of the foster care system. Unfortunately, about 25% of those aging out without help experience homelessness and/or the criminal justice system by age 22. That’s why the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services offers transitional living services like job-seeking support and housing for men and women ages 18-21. The programs are administered by community organizations like ACH.

The new internship partnership blossomed from ACH’s commitment to finding opportunities for transitioning foster children and Arlington Water’s desire to expose young people to job prospects in the water industry, says Michelle Mullenix, ACH Director of Youth and Family Services.

“Arlington Water department leaders are passionate about working with the community,” Mullenix says. “This was an opportunity to help young men from hard situations have a chance at a career as well as helping give back to the community. The water department also provides mentorship to these young men by communicating with the staff at ACH Child and Family Services any areas of growth these young men might need to work on.”

Attracting and retaining talented employees is a consistent concern for the water utilities industry, especially as estimates show more and more retirements by baby boomers in the coming years. Nationally, industry groups like the American Water Works Association have championed specialized programs that seek to attract young people and veterans to stable, challenging utilities careers. Locally, internships for high school and college interns are offered at Arlington Water Utilities and other municipal utilities in North Texas.

James Doonkeen, a maintenance supervisor in Arlington Water Utilities treatment division, saw an opportunity to expand these programs when he heard about ACH’s goal of helping former foster children find a career path. He approached department leaders with the idea in 2018 and worked with them to make it a reality. The City of Arlington Water Utilities is the first department in the City to partner with ACH and the Workforce Commission to offer an internship for those exiting the foster care system.

“We can offer training and the goal is for them to get a license. We hope we have openings here that they can transition into. But if we can’t, they can go anywhere and a license will help them get a job,” says Craig Gantt, Arlington Water Utilities Acting Assistant Director for Operations. “It’s a great opportunity for them to make connections and be mentored.”

Ryder Coffman is 20 years old and started interning at the water department this spring as the first participant in the new program. He has been in foster care for more than 5 years and has lived at ACH since he turned 18. Currently, he arrives at work in Arlington at 7 a.m. each day and heads out to read customers’ water meters. So far, he likes the work.

“It depends on if you can take the heat. It’s pretty easy if you have the patience,” he says. Coffman reads as many as 350 meter a day. Getting to know his co-workers and seeing what it takes to meet the requirements of a job has been beneficial, Coffman says. Later, he’ll learn about installing the meters and fixing water main breaks.

At the end of the program, Coffman and other employees will test for and receive a Class D Water Operator License from TCEQ with the possibility to receive further training through a partnership with Tarrant County College.

“I think it’s definitely going to give me more experience and probably give me more opportunities. It will open up a lot of doors,” Coffman says.

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