From The Editor | November 10, 2020

Fresh Perspective For The Water Workforce

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By Kevin Westerling,
@KevinOnWater

Nicole A. Blanco
Nicole A. Blanco, SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions (WTS)

Nicole A. Blanco was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She learned early in life that she had a passion for engineering and science, which she eventually channeled into a career in water. Nicole was the first in her family to obtain a college degree, then proceeded to break down barriers in an industry sorely in need of — and yearning for — operational innovation and evolution. As you will surely find through the following Q&A, the water sector needs more like her, and we hope her story provides inspiration to both aspiring young professionals and future mentors.

What are your current job and day-to-day responsibilities?

I’m the Brilliant Fulfillment Process Improvement Leader for North America and Latin America with SUEZ’s Water Technologies & Solutions (WTS) business unit. I focus on identifying and leading improvement projects across the WTS supply chain; these projects target ways we can improve our customer interactions from the time we quote through when we deliver. Some of the areas I work with are business and process key performance indicators (KPIs), system improvements and designs, as well as inventory management.

What do you like about the job?

My favorite part of this job is that I get to work with people from all over the world. It’s amazing to see how we all do things differently, and having the chance to exchange ideas with such a diverse team has been key to the solutions I’ve been able to implement as part of my role. Another great aspect is the variety of projects I get to work on; one day I’m talking about inventory management and shipping logistics, and the next day I’m talking with process engineers about how to improve their metrics and production. There’s never a dull day.

Can you share more about your career path and what led you to the water sector?

While I was still pursuing my degree in industrial engineering, I started my career as a tooling intern for General Electric in their Power and Water division. I completed several internships and co-ops with GE before I graduated and joined their Operational Management and Leadership Program (OMLP). While there, completed several engineering rotations, including generator quality engineer and steam turbine manufacturing engineer, among others. I fell in love with the water industry during my last rotation in the program, where I was an elements improvement engineer for GE’s Water & Process Technologies business unit. In 2017, SUEZ acquired that business, and since then I have held different positions within SUEZ, all of which I’ve loved and enjoyed.

Pursuing a career in the water industry has allowed me to stay connected to some of the issues that affect all of us around the world in one way or another. Having the opportunity to get off the sidelines and walk onto the field to create change makes every day on the job very enjoyable.

What educational level, skills, and traits are required for your role?

My industrial engineering degree has opened so many doors throughout my career. I have been exposed to all the sides of the supply chain very early on, including direct manufacturing, supervision of union and nonunion workforces, inventory management, improvement projects, etc. When it comes to skills and traits, I’d say that curiosity and a “can-do” attitude are important for the roles I’ve had. Individuals in my role should also take a “trust but verify” approach, and should take the opportunity to physically look at the parts or talk to the engineers, team members, and experts every chance you get. I’ve had the opportunity to learn so many things, from how to build a generator to what it takes to create the perfect customer ordering experience, just by asking the right questions and listening to the experts.

Through your experience, what challenges might someone face when pursuing this career path?

I have faced two main challenges over the years. The first challenge is that the water industry has so many parts and pieces that one might get lost trying to find where you belong. It’s such a great industry, filled with ways to help so many communities around the world, that we can end up trying to fix everything in one day. I have dealt with this challenge by focusing on one problem at a time and learning as much as I can about how my work helps the world around me.

The second challenge is a more personal one. As a female Latina engineer, I started my career with what some might consider a double negative. I experienced many challenges when I decided to become an engineer, dealing with the perception that engineering is a man’s career. I have often been the only woman on teams, but I have never let the fact that I’m a woman in a man’s world get in the way of my career. I’ve always embraced the fact that I bring diversity and a different point of view to the table. I’ve had great mentors that have taken the time to teach me the ropes and coach me. This is why I’m passionate about coaching female students who are thinking of pursuing a career in engineering. I want them to know how empowering it is to be a female engineer, and that while there are a lot of barriers along the way, those barriers can be overcome.

What advice do you have for an individual who is interested in pursuing a career in your line of work?

Do it! We’re always looking for people who want to be part of this amazing industry. Take the leap and start your career by getting to know the process that you’re most passionate about. Ask as many questions as you can, and find mentors and role models who can help guide you. Don’t ever hesitate to ask questions, because most of the time someone else has the same questions and didn’t want to ask.

Have you always felt supported by your organization and your industry?

Being supported by my team is something that I must have in a role. I consider myself very lucky to have such an amazing team across the board. They’ve supported me 100 percent in every career move and personal milestone. I started this role while I was pregnant, and no one ever hesitated to help me with all my questions, regardless of whether they were about my role or about pregnancy. Having a great support group and network has been a big part of my career success.

Much has been made of the water industry's pending "brain drain" with reference to the anticipated retirement of operators and engineers. What can you say about the passing of the torch between generations?

When I joined the power industry, I was part of a small GE tooling center that handled most of the tooling for power plant repairs around the world. Most of the team members there had been working in the company for over 10 years and some of them more than 30 years. The leadership was very concerned about the “brain drain” concept. This is why I’m very focused on asking questions and not being afraid to get my hands dirty while learning on the job. I was a 21-yearold engineer back then, following all these company veterans around with my million questions, and none of them ever hesitated to answer my questions and teach me the ropes. I think this new generation of operators and engineers needs to take the lead and learn from the experts. If you know someone who’s an expert and is thinking of retiring, talk to them and let them know that you want to learn from their knowledge. On the other hand, if you’re an expert who’s thinking of retiring, find an apprentice and show them the ropes.

The water profession has wider implications for the environment, public health, and thriving communities. How do you connect your job to larger issues, personal commitments, and societal goals?

Water issues are very personal to me. I was born in Puerto Rico, which is an island that’s 100 miles by 35 miles in the middle of the Caribbean. As a young girl, I remember there being droughts and not having water service for days because we were trying to save it. My beautiful island has always been blessed with many natural resources, but we still faced times when the lack of clean water was, and still is, a problem. During Hurricane Maria, clean water became a luxury. This really hit home for me when, after several weeks of being unable to communicate with my family, I found out that they did not have any clean water to drink. It took me a few tries to ship water to them since most water was stolen once it arrived at the island, but I eventually was successful.

Globally, the lack of clean water is a problem that’s bigger than all of us, so we need a solution that’s bigger than us as well. This is why I consider myself lucky to be part of the water industry. I get to work with an amazing team that’s finding solutions to the world’s most challenging water problems that families across the world, including mine, experience often.