Like scattered seeds that take hold and blossom, Anne Fairchild’s laboratory internship program has trained several generations of water quality specialists, and has inspired the development of internship programs throughout the industry. Water quality laboratory manager for the City of San Luis Obispo, Fairchild started the internships to help fill staffing gaps in her department.
Today, more than 150 laboratory professionals around the state owe their start to her program, which requires that interns spend 20 hours a week for a minimum of 6 months at no pay, learning both the technical side of the laboratory as well as soft skills and culture. It’s an investment of time and effort that pays off. “If you stay with us for a year,” Fairchild says, “you’ll have a 30-year payout.”
Fairchild grew up in the Bay area and graduated from Cal Poly SLO with a degree in biology. She worked in the lab as a master’s degree student, then joined the SLO staff in 1993, becoming lab manager in 2006. The press of new regulations and a shortage of staff sparked the internship strategy. “There were just two of us, working around the clock,” she recalls. “We were sinking under all the new rules.”
She gave a talk to a class of micro-biology students about opportunities in water quality, and that led to the internship program as a way to get them involved and explore career opportunities. “Someone gave me a chance when I started,” she says. “So now we’re giving opportunities to others.”
The program has been widely recognized, and other water quality departments and agencies have copied the model.
“The program’s benefits have been far reaching,” wrote colleague Aaron Floyd who nominated her for the Emerging Leader award. “Interns benefit from on-the-job training…and the city benefits by being able to deliver uninterrupted service in spite of limited staffing conditions.
“Using Anne’s recipe, several SLO Utility Department sections have developed highly successful internship programs,” Floyd added. “In addition, several of Anne’s previous interns have also initiated successful internship programs state-wide.”
There’s a waiting list. “It would be nice to take everybody, but we just can’t,” Fairchild says. “It takes staff time to help get our interns on their feet.”
Once they do, however, the pride is rewarding. “It’s satisfying to see these people grow as water quality professionals. They come in (to the program) as green buds, and go on to become rock stars in the industry.”