Women Thriving in Public Sector Utilities: Karen Morgan’s Inspirational Path

December 2023

An Interview with Karen Morgan, Utilities Manager, Mountain House Community Services District

In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Karen Morgan stands out as a beacon of hope and inspiration. With a remarkable career in public sector utilities, she has broken barriers and shattered stereotypes due to her unwavering determination and passion. Karen recently shared her experiences and insights, providing a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs she faced as a woman in her field. This is an influential story for women considering careers in public sector utilities.

A Journey Rooted in Hands-On Experience

Karen’s journey in public sector utilities demonstrates her deep-rooted interest and background for hands-on work. Growing up, she worked alongside her father in construction, gaining practical skills that would later become instrumental in her career.

Karen reflects on her beginnings, saying, “I’ve always been very hands-on. My dad built houses my whole life, so from a very young age, I knew how to do a lot of construction work, like pouring concrete, electrical work, and welding.”

Opportunity Knocks

In her early twenties, Karen’s career took an unexpected turn when she crossed paths with a crew leader from the City of Modesto parks department. She recalls the moment, “My brother-in-law’s crew leader saw me stripping the forms from a new foundation at my sister’s house, and he said, ‘You need to come work at the City.’” So, she was hired as a temporary employee, working in manual labor for three years. “I was a Shovel Technician, and I loved it.”

Even though Karen was one of few women in her division, her dedication and hard work led to steady promotions, earning job titles such as Park Mechanic. Upon a suggestion from a coworker, she started studying for state water certifications and eventually transferred to the Water Department as a Meter Reader, Water Distribution Operator, and Water Production Operator III.

During this period, Karen started a family, had three children, and continued to rack up state water certifications. She stayed fit and even continued to perform tasks such as lifting 65-pound buckets of chlorine into the back of her truck while pregnant.

Continuous Learning through Education

However, her path took a challenging turn when she suffered a severe shoulder injury. Karen’s resilience is evident in her response to this setback, “To be told you’ll never work again- and I’d already invested everything into my career- I didn’t know what to do. I thought the only thing I could do is to go to school and become a boss.” So, she enrolled at the local junior college and earned her associate degree in Supervisory Management.

Karen’s commitment to education and personal growth eventually led her to leadership roles in public sector utilities. Based on her experience, she was brought into a small city to build a Water Department, and she learned how to manage wastewater and storm water. “It kind of set me up for the next step, which was the Superintendent position at the City of Ceres,“ says Karen. She continued her studies and earned her Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources from Oregon State. Today, she continues her studies for a master’s degree in Natural Resources. “Water is something that has interested me since I was born,“ she mused.

Karen advises others to find work they enjoy and excel in, regardless of their gender: “My path was not intentional; it seems totally intentional, but it’s not. I seized the right opportunities at the right times.” Her career and educational journey, marked by perseverance, serves as an inspiring example to others.

Challenges Are Inherent

Karen firmly believes that gender did not hinder her career progression. “I don’t think that just because I’m a woman I faced challenges.” She emphasized that challenges are a part of any career path, and she always knew when she wasn’t qualified for a job. This mindset helped her overcome any potential bias.

Building a Support Network

In a traditionally male-dominated environment, Karen managed to build a strong support network. She mentioned her ability to connect with men naturally, although she initially tried to modify her behavior to fit in. “You’re never going to get into a group that way; you don’t need to change yourself,” Karen added. She realized that being herself was more important than trying to conform.

Career Progression through Grit and Determination

Securing management positions in public sector utilities was not too challenging for Karen. In fact, she believes it was harder to obtain manual labor jobs due to the specific skills required. To excel in these roles, she noted the importance of having extensive experience, particularly in practical tasks and knowing how to use tools big and small. “I wasn’t afraid to learn how to do something. I’m a lot more afraid of bigger tools now than I was back then!” she laughed.

Throughout her career, Karen naturally stood out due to her dedication and work ethic. Her consistent presence in the field made her a familiar face, even in a large organization. “I didn’t want to stand out. I would rather just fly under the radar.” But she took pride in her reputation of getting things done which is how she won the respect of colleagues and management, “I want my work to stand out for me.”

Advice for Aspiring Women in the Public Sector

Karen’s thoughts on women in public sector utilities reflect her own unique experiences. She acknowledges the industry’s demanding nature, but her message is clear: women can do anything in this field. She encourages women to fully commit themselves to the profession if they choose to enter it.

Karen emphasizes the importance of women not only participating but excelling in their roles, making it clear that she expects excellence from her peers. “If you’re going to come out here and do it, just do it. Otherwise, stay home.” She also stresses, “I think having more women around the table would be very positive. Women are meticulous and skilled in collaboration and networking,” and have very good attention to detail, which are prized skills in the utilities industry.

She believes that there is a place for everyone in utilities, whether it’s in the office or out in the field. Karen’s key message is to choose a career path that one enjoys and is passionate about, as that enthusiasm will sustain them over the long term. She emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and education, underlining her own journey of obtaining various and increasingly more complex certifications.

Diversification Yields Unique Perspectives

As a leader in the industry, Karen believes in diversifying not just in terms of gender but across the spectrum of diversity. She values the unique perspectives and experiences that people from different backgrounds can bring to the table. Karen is passionate about hearing from everyone and stresses the importance of open lines of communication to bring fresh voices and ideas to the industry.

The Next Generation

Furthermore, Karen encourages introducing the younger generation to the industry, especially in high schools, to stoke their interest in operations and utility-related careers. She eagerly conveys the diverse range of opportunities that the public sector provides, from entry-level positions to more specialized roles: “Utilities offers anything that you can possibly think of doing.” Karen highlights the industry’s need for talented individuals who are committed to maintaining and improving essential services. “We need to get these kids interested because we need operators so badly. It’s really challenging to run a water and wastewater system with not enough certified people.”

Karen’s story is an enduring source of inspiration for women in public sector utilities. Her journey, marked by determination, practical skills, and a commitment to learning, challenges traditional gender roles in a male-dominated field. Karen encourages women to wholeheartedly embrace their chosen paths and excel in their roles. Her story is a beacon of empowerment for women, proving that gender should never be a barrier to pursuing a successful career in public sector utilities.

Koff & Associates