Many APWA chapters involving students in chapter activities

David Dancy
Director of Marketing
APWA Kansas City Office

You've heard the buzz—many baby boomers are preparing to retire in the next five years. In fact, in 2006 there were 78.2 million boomers, and every day nearly 8,000 of them turn 60. Not only will their retirement leave a huge hole in the general workforce, but it also will affect the workplace at the highest levels. In the public works field where the average age of employees has risen steadily, the gap also will be felt at the mid and entry levels as people are promoted to replace the boomers.

When that happens, who will step up to fill those vacancies? It's not just industry buzz, it's a reality coming quickly and not leaving soon! What are we doing to bring young people into the field? How can we develop our workforce for the upcoming shortage?

To help meet the challenge, APWA chapters all across North America are getting a jump on developing young people for potential careers in public works by involving students in regular chapter activities. This greatly pleases national APWA President Bill Verkest, who believes it is essential for chapters to get students involved now to ensure the continued success of both our chapters and the profession.

"Chapter Capacity Building has many fronts," said Verkest, "not the least of which is involving a greater number of people in chapter activities, and certainly this includes students. Involving students has at least two principal benefits—it exposes students to public works and the everyday value the profession has to sustaining the quality of life expected by the taxpayers we serve, and secondly, students add to the strength of the chapter by bringing fresh, new ideas to the table."

APWA President-Elect Larry Frevert addresses students from the Kansas City Metro Student Chapter.

In Kansas City, APWA President-Elect Larry Frevert led his chapter in an effort to include students in the 2002 APWA International Public Works Congress and Exposition with the inception of what is now the annual Future's program. Sixty local college students visited the first-time event, giving them the opportunity to see public works in action.

But that was just the beginning. Shortly after the 2002 Congress, the Kansas City Metro Chapter began to work with the University of Missouri-Kansas City to pilot a student program at the university. Now in its fifth year, the student chapter has nearly 30 active students participating in chapter events as well as special student events designed to broaden their knowledge of and interest in public works.

"Students get firsthand exposure to the opportunity to serve their communities through a public works career," said Frevert. "Direct exposure to 'role models' found every day in public works and the mentoring they so willingly provide will help students be better public works professionals or see the value of service in whatever career they choose."

But success in developing student initiatives is not just limited to Kansas City!

In Nevada, Peggy Pound has been heading up an effort to involve college students in the Nevada Chapter since 2002. Chapter volunteers have worked with engineering departments from both the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Nevada-Reno, and are even reaching out to local high schools to build a foundation of students for the future. Chapter members offer mentorship to the students, and students have the opportunity for involvement in the chapter by helping with the EWeek Dinner/Dance as well as having a committee seat reserved for a student on both of the Nevada Conferences.

The latest benefit the chapter has offered is a website chat room for the students to connect with mentors and professors. Two times per month the chat room is open for students to chat with a mentor or a professor (or both) as well as a moderator to answer any questions as to what classes they should take, any advice on careers, etc. They average eight students for each chat and anticipate this number will grow as they do more to publicize the benefit.

"The biggest challenge to growing your student program is not letting things slip," said Pound. "A good program requires a lot of attention and commitment from mentors."

More than a thousand miles away, the Oklahoma Chapter began its quest to involve students in January of 2006. "The trick to getting students to the first enrollment meeting was providing free pizza," said Mark Rogers, Past President of the Oklahoma Chapter and student chapter advisor at Tulsa Community College. "We sent out about 700 invitations to students in specific degrees and paired that event with our regular branch meeting in Northeast Oklahoma so branch members had the opportunity to meet the students, faculty, and staff."

But it didn't stop with just this first encounter. The initial group of students from this meeting started meeting biweekly to complete requirements of the college for a student organization. In October 2006, they finalized their constitution, dictating officer and membership requirements, and then began meeting on a monthly basis as a student organization. "The students want to keep interest up in the organization, so in between monthly meetings they like to go on field trips," said Rogers. "So far the students have visited a water treatment plant, a wastewater treatment plant, the new arena construction project in downtown Tulsa and plan to tour the traffic signal/signage areas and wastewater/stormwater collection areas in the near future."

The Minnesota Chapter also used free pizza to get students involved—as well as many other enticements such as job fairs, posters, internships, direct mailings and speaking with school staff directly. They currently have five student members in their chapter and look to keep building. "The Minnesota Chapter leadership sees the value of involving young people in the public works field, and we hope to create awareness of the exciting and valuable work we do," said Elise Ebhardt of the Minneapolis Public Works Department and current coordinator of student activities in the chapter.

Mike Marti from the Minnesota Chapter leadership/executive board developed the initial plan as a workforce development initiative and a way to promote education and careers in civil engineering and public works. Both Mike and Elise have a passion for working with young people. "It's fun and provides a great way to stay in touch with younger generations," said Ebhardt.

Students discover potential careers in public works at the North Carolina Chapter Public Works Career Expo 2007.

In the future, the Minnesota Chapter would also like to expand its efforts to include junior high and high school students, which is exactly what the North Carolina Chapter of APWA is currently doing. This spring, the Cities of Charlotte and Gastonia, along with private industries, produced and introduced their first "Careers in Public Works Expo 2007," designed for 8th grade students. Approximately 350 students attended the event that included exhibitor demonstrations showcasing various city careers and departments such as engineering, solid waste, stormwater, utilities, street maintenance, transportation, landscaping, and building maintenance. The North Carolina Chapter teamed with the Solid Waste Association of North America, the North Carolina American Water Works Association, and the Water Environment Association to sponsor the event.

So how can you get started?
"First of all," declared Frevert, "you need one or more chapter members that are willing to say 'Let's make this happen!' Chapter members that have a passion for making it work. The students are eager to learn, participate and organize. They just need a little help with the details, and they need some financial assistance from the chapter to support their activities."

One person can make a difference. In Kansas City, Bill Yord of the KC Metro Chapter has a passion for making the student chapter a success, and he was their advocate with the chapter's executive committee for funding and with the chapter members to serve as meeting speakers, event sponsors and potential employers for the students. His efforts are really beginning to pay dividends not only for the students but also the working members.

"It's a two-way street," said Frevert. "We never stop learning, whether it's in the classroom or the workplace. The young people entering the workplace today are so much more technologically adept than I am. I feel that I and others in the Kansas City Metro Chapter have benefited from our exposure to these young people, and I feel that our mentoring of them will be beneficial to them."

"Students can help us remember the axiom: Don't kill an idea; execute it!" maintained Verkest. "Truth is, our tomorrows are getting closer all the time. Getting students involved now will ensure continued success for our chapters as well as the public works profession as we attempt to stay out in front of those tomorrows."

Next year in his presidential term Frevert will continue to encourage chapters to involve students just as Verkest has done. "In the future I would like to see a student chapter in each of our 64 chapters and many more sponsored by our branches. Any university or college that offers a degree in construction management, engineering, architecture, an MPA or other discipline found in public works should consider the benefits a student APWA chapter offers. It's up to us, the active members of APWA to make this happen. It's time to start now—don't leave it for someone else to do."

Dave Dancy can be reached at (816) 595-5250 or

Student Membership Toolkit Available Online

APWA offers a Student Membership Toolkit in the Member Tools section of "Members Only" ( which contains excellent resources to assist with a local student membership initiative. Contents include:

  • Information about Student Membership Programs
  • Establishing a College/University Student Section (includes sample Application for Student Organization Recognition and sample Student Section Constitution and Bylaws)
  • Student Membership "Leave behind" for College Professors/Administrators NEW
  • Template for Suggested Committee and Subcommittee Structure NEW
  • Sample Calendar of Activities NEW
  • Sample Announcement regarding launch of local student membership program NEW
  • Template for Pizza Party invitation NEW
  • Links to: Student Membership Application; Benefits Comparison Chart; Descriptions of various types of membership; Online form for requesting APWA materials

If you have questions about any of these items or have problems getting to the Student Membership Toolkit, please contact Patty Mahan at (800) 848-2792, ext 5256.