PERL: This gem of an educational partnership is helping build Indiana’s water workforce

While known for top-rated university science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs that are educating the next generation of water professionals, the state of Indiana has a problem: convincing graduating students to stay.  

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology civil engineering students toured several Citizens projects through PERL last spring. Photo courtesy of Citizens Energy Group.

Half of the 2014-to-2016 bachelor’s-level STEM graduates of Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.), for example, found employment out of state, according to a study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.  

Such news is particularly concerning to companies like Citizens Energy Group (CEG; Indianapolis), which expects a significant portion of its workforce to retire in the next decade. So CEG, which provides natural gas, thermal energy, water, and wastewater services to 800,000 people in the Indianapolis area, decided to do something about it.  

The result is PERL – Partnership for Excellence in Learning – a program the utility service company initiated in 2016 to help tether graduates to the state.  

“Indiana graduates leave Indiana for a variety of reasons,” said PERL lead Becky Schaefer, who also supervises underground engineering and construction planning for CEG. Some graduates are returning home or “desire to live in more trendy areas,” she explained. But many perceive a lack of local opportunities.  

Of those reasons, the only one CEG can address is the last one. “That is why our program is based on sharing exciting, engaging, and innovative opportunities in the utility industry,” she said. 

After PERL’s formation, CEG began meeting with universities to identify needs and mutually beneficial collaboration opportunities. Six universities established formal relationships with PERL.  

How PERL works 

CEG assigns a current employee to serve as a PERL ambassador to each partner school. Ambassadors also are alumni of their university partner. Their job is to make students aware of job shadowing, student-led research, and internship opportunities, as well as to organize guest speakers and other collaborative activities. 

“Providing hands-on experience has been the best way to share opportunities with students because they make a lasting impression,” said Shaefer.  

The summer 2018 PERL intern class toured the Eagle Creek dam. Photo courtesy of Citizens Energy Group.

PERL’s cross-functional internship program, for example, is designed to help students identify their niche by exposing them to a variety of CEG projects and departments. Interns have worked on projects ranging from an anaerobic digester feasibility study, to water resource recovery facility energy audits, to the creation of 3-D renderings for public information presentations.  

PERL also offers mentoring on networking and communication skills. Among the program’s more popular events is an hour-long “speed networking” event where interns meet one-on-one with CEG executives to ask questions and learn more about the company.  

“We’ve learned from students that their top lessons learned through PERL projects are the importance of communication, the need to adjust a plan during implementation, and how dependent they are on others to complete a project and trusting their team,” said Schaefer. 

It’s working 

In less than three years, PERL has engaged 2,000 students with its programming, hosted 19 interns, collaborated on more than 50 projects and participated in almost 60 events, Schaefer said. PERL also has assisted its university partners in securing millions of grant dollars in areas ranging from sustainability and public health to energy efficiency.  

More proof the program is working: this past year saw a 400% increase in intern applications. Two former interns have been hired as full-time employees by CEG vendors via connections they made through PERL. 

Given that the Indiana Department of Workforce Development predicts that STEM jobs will represent 12.1% of all Indianan jobs by 2020, that’s a start. 

— Mary BufeWEF Highlights