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Conferences are Key to Developing the Next Generation of Industry Leaders

Article-Conferences are Key to Developing the Next Generation of Industry Leaders

As a waste and recycling industry veteran, I am cognizant that sometime within the next decade or so, for me and for many of my contemporaries, the process of passing the torch to new leaders and innovators will begin. It will be an interesting time, considering that a number of legacy names fall within these ranks.

Legacies? Yes. Some more than others and maybe in the broadest sense of the word. At a minimum, theirs were the faces and personalities, who we had the expectation and freedom to mingle with and learn from, at least once each year, and to become better ourselves because of the experience. Those contacts continue to make us more productive by getting us past the gatekeepers, opening up doors to opportunities that are not widely known and by freely sharing solutions.

In case you think this is going to be one of those rants about the glory days, relax. It isn’t; well not exactly. It’s about a mistake that we’ve made along the way. I am talking about the shortsightedness of the existing barriers and policies that severely limit or ban travel and participation in industry events, like conferences, workshops and seminars. While this philosophy is not unique to the waste and recycling industry, the commonality of the circumstance doesn’t lessen its impact on our interests.

Recently, for government agencies, the travel restrictions have been accelerated by the damning news of the IRS’s three-year $50 million conference spending spree. But make no mistake, there was a growing trend, bordering on a moratorium, in corporate culture as well as government, long before that.  It’s an easy budgetary line item to target.

To satisfy shareholders and/or pacify elected officials, depending on who that “somebody” is that you’ve got to serve, we may be shortchanging those who are the bench strength. For certain, we aren’t helping our organizations by hampering professional development. You can’t think outside of the box if the lid continues to be taped shut.

In preparing for this column, I approached a variety of waste and recycling organizations and different levels of staff, managers, and department heads in hopes of gaining some solid budgetary trends, guidelines or statistics. What I got instead, was an obvious sense of paranoia and fear of discovery for discussing the topic and the difficulties that persist.

In fact, concerns run deep that the conspicuous absence of local government or regulatory agency attendees, at both state and national conferences, could be fostering the perception, and in time creating the reality, of a stagnant thinking or inferior workforce in those organizations.

The private sector suffers from the same dilemma, especially in its rank and file employees at local districts, divisions, regions, etc. When you see pushback from general or operations managers for collection and processing options that are commonplace elsewhere, invariably, it is due to lack of exposure. A company is only as good as the location that serves local customers’ needs. While leadership may have a futuristic vision, it doesn’t advance easily if the local service providers are stuck in 1990s thinking and technology.

Not only are we limiting the currently employed, we’re dissuading new talent from entering our ranks. A 2013 Forbes magazine report on the top ten corporations for the happiest young professionals shares their views on what attracted them to and keeps them working for their employer. Consistently, professional development, on-going training and opportunities to learn made the list.

A 2015 survey of federal agency employees concluded that America’s future innovation and competitiveness require engagement, collaboration and learning with those inside and outside of government. The report offers that face-to-face interaction is a valuable tool for providing efficient taxpayer services, facilitating cross-agency collaboration and developing private-sector partnerships.

Admittedly, conference attendees have been stereotyped as wasting time and seeking out entertainment over substance. Critics and bean counters use this to diminish the value of networking.

I can only speak for myself, but the most valuable information I bring home from a conference isn’t limited to the talking head presentations. It is enhanced from the sidebar conversations in between the sessions, both with the speakers and the attendees. Of course, some of the interaction occurs over a glass of wine or a cocktail, or two. That doesn’t diminish the value of the ideas exchanged or the bonds formed with obvious experts.

New training theories are not as focused on rote information. The objectives these days are for participants to walk away with the ability to think about a topic or issue differently, not just repeat a presenter’s facts. A well-orchestrated conference experience is designed to support that outcome.

So while webinars, teleconferencing, Skype, etc. provide us with time sensitive information and quick exposure, they should complement, not eliminate conference attendance. Some of my friends may buy a Lincoln because in the commercial, Matthew McConaughey looks good behind the wheel. For me, there’s no replacement for the test drive. I suspect our frontline people share a similar viewpoint, when it comes to new equipment and technology. We need to give more of these folks a chance to not only kick the tires, but to also interact with other individuals in their roles who have already made it work.  

If we want to attract, retain and advance the best and brightest young professionals, it’s up to us to ensure that they have the ongoing tools and resources to make informed decisions. Our legacy in the industry should be to provide them with the same freedom to network and bond as we were offered.  Peer-to-peer interaction at conferences, workshops and seminars must be a vital piece of that policy. 

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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