High school students uncover the hidden world of utilities

Updated August 15, 2023
High school students uncover the hidden world of utilities
It's different from your typical field trip at a local wastewater treatment plant or between scores of wooden power lines that comprise a high-voltage yard. Students rarely get the chance to fix a leaking water pipe or operate the arm of an excavator.

But the City of Roseville's Utility Exploration Center (UEC) and its Roseville Utilities aim for something other than typical. Instead, they're designing innovative ways to teach and expose high school students to the often unseen world of public utilities — and perhaps even spark an interest in a future career. The notion that seeing is believing but immersing them in daily activities is reaffirming.

About 40 high school students participated in Roseville Utilities Field Day this spring to learn about keeping city services running. During the third occurrence of this event, students had the opportunity to visit four utility sites encompassing various aspects of Roseville's utility infrastructure.

These visits allowed students to interact with workers responsible for power supply, waste transportation, and water and wastewater.


"It's often challenging to find that perfect little sliver of time when you can grab a high school kid's attention to have them think outside of their four years in high school," said Melissa Kinsey, Interpretive Services Specialist with the Utility Exploration Center. "We hope that this is one of those opportunities."

Like utility districts nationwide, Roseville Utilities is encountering a labor shortage. The utility industry is currently experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants as many individuals within the field are reaching retirement age. To bridge this workforce gap, Roseville Utilities Field Day offers a promising solution. This initiative aims to attract potential employees and inspire indecisive teenagers regarding their future career paths.

Anna Gonzalez-Cifuentes is the Roseville Joint Union High School District's career technical education and dual enrollment specialist who helped select students for the field trip.

"This spring trip is geared more for students who absolutely have no idea if they want to go to college," she said. "There are students who feel a little lost, or don't feel like their grades are good enough, or they just don't want to go to college. Some of them are needing a little guidance."


Roseville Environmental Utilities Director Richard Plecker explained that utilities offer "a vast array of trades, crafts, skills, professions, things that you might be interested in someday," from welding to communications work. And not every position requires a four-year degree.

"Our goal is that these students start to realize that there's a lot of opportunities in the utilities," said UEC Supervisor Brayden Mitchell. "Jobs they can get in their hometown, where they grew up, turning into very good careers."

Students convened at Roseville's Corporation Yard to start the day's activities. Among them were Woodcreek High School construction students enrolled in a dual-credit program with Sierra College. Additionally, English Language Learner (ELL) students from Antelope High School were present, and both Roseville Utilities and the school district ensured the availability of translators for assistance.

The students had the opportunity to visit four stations, spending approximately an hour at each one. At these stations, they received a comprehensive introduction to the utility, exploring various careers and salary prospects. Moreover, they gained a practical understanding of the work involved through engaging in hands-on activities.

During the water utility presentation, the students tried their hands at tightening a model of a leaky water pipe, something that the utility does daily as part of their routine maintenance.

Woodcreek High School junior Skye Lavin was among the first in her group to volunteer, with a water distribution worker guiding her through the process.

"The thing is, when you're doing this, you're going to be three or four feet in the ground," he told her.
"In the ground?" Skye replied.
"Yeah! You're in the hole," he explained.


In addition, the students gained valuable insights into Roseville's water supply portfolio. For example, they learned about recycled water use (taking highly treated wastewater and using it for landscapes and industrial uses) to supplement drinking water resources, ensuring a reliable source regardless of prevailing water supply conditions.

"It cuts our city's reliance on tap water, or potable water because we put all of the recycled water back into our parks landscapes, golf courses, and all that," Trent Johnson, Environmental Utilities Maintenance Superintendent, explained.

"It's interesting because I had no idea all this stuff went on with wastewater," said Woodcreek junior Olivia Allen.

And although junior Sara Johnson has her sights set on college to become a marine biologist, the fact that Roseville Electric had never had a woman lineman was enticing.

"They've had people go through the apprenticeship but never a woman lineman," she said. "I thought that was really cool; I really thought about it: There's never been a woman lineman. I'll be the first."


Throughout the day, numerous "a-ha" moments occurred as students made meaningful connections between the essential services they depended on and the dedicated utility employees responsible for ensuring the seamless operation of these systems.

"The UEC always has this goal of peeling back the curtain. We hope the students are in awe when they see something they knew nothing about," Kinsey said.

A survey was conducted among the students before and after the Field Day event. The results revealed that before the event, only 20 percent of the students had considered a career in utilities. However, after participating in the event, this percentage increased to 32%, indicating a growing interest in pursuing a career in utilities. The UEC uses this feedback and other input to customize and enhance future Field Day events.

"My favorite part was getting to operate all of the different refuse trucks, especially the side loader," said one high school student. Another said, "It was interesting speaking to the experienced linemen and learning about their experience. I really valued that time because I've looked into being a lineman after high school myself."


Brayden Mitchell mentioned that in addition to other indicators, he values lunchtime conversations as a less formal yet significant measure of engagement with the students.

"We encourage our utility partners to come and eat lunch with the students," he said, which is held in a grove of oak trees. "Over the last two events, I've noticed more of our utility partners joining and striking up a conversation."

The UEC team has been eager to expand its utility lessons beyond those offered to pre-K through 5th-grade students. Field Day and a growing internship program are the UEC's first programs for high schoolers.

"It might be a little bit early to really be cementing in your career plans, but our purpose of having these is to introduce people to the utilities," said Plecker, adding that they may still be figuring out what they're good at and interested in. "Rest assured no matter what it is that you want to do, what your skills are, there's a role for you in the utility world."

With the assistance of school district staff, such as Anna Gonzalez-Cifuentes, and collaborating teachers, the UEC successfully attracted approximately 120 high school students thus far in all three events combined. The inaugural event included a diverse group of around eight students from five nearby high schools, while the second event specifically targeted students enrolled in engineering classes or clubs.


"We're just going to continue to morph it as we get the interest and the best fit," said Kinsey.

"I'm looking forward to diversifying our Field Days to showcase more opportunities within Roseville's utilities," added Mitchell. "This is a great framework and start to something that should be happening in more than just Roseville."