As a young professional, both in respect of my career and recent plunge into the solid waste industry, I eagerly anticipated WASTECON 2011 in Nashville, TN. It was to be my first. With no baseline for comparison, I struggled to set an expectation for the conference. To summarize, WASTECON surpassed my expectations. The investment of time and financial resources necessary to attend the conference proved an excellent decision and returned many times over. Although I inherited more work (hence my writing of this article), it was a fruitful trip. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m happy to share my experience and accepted the task of putting that to words enthusiastically. However, I struggled with an approach to frame my WASTECON experience. And then, I had an epiphany. To connect you from the point we’re at now (A) to my end epiphany (B), allow me to set the stage.
One overarching takeaway, especially after spending time talking with other attendees, was the realization that WASTECON offers a platform for knowledge, information sharing, trouble-shooting, networking, and professional growth to anyone involved in the solid waste industry.
Gone are the days of apprenticeship, like masonry and welding, where master craftsmen passed on a skill-set to the next generation (or so I thought that had vanished). It’s possible that fragmented educational opportunities are available. But how readily accessible are those to a majority of the industry? Many organizations, including the company I work for-the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority in Lancaster, PA-cultivate their staffs into managers over the course of decades. Those individuals are shaped and molded into future leaders. Knowledge is passed on, skills are refined, and experience is gained. But that’s only one component to developing expert staff. It’s vital not only to thoroughly understand your business, but also to understand how similar organizations further their business, trouble-shoot problems, implement new technology, and so forth. Where does one find this type of information? (You know where this is going.) WASTECON!
I discovered that WASTECON offers, in a concentrated time frame, the bringing together of a diverse assemblage of like-minded professionals from all over the waste management sector, looking to expand their knowledge, share insight into their own lessons learned, develop beneficial professional contacts, refine their skill-set, challenge the status-quo, and ultimately leave the convention with an enriching experience. Not just to learn and absorb, but gain relevant information for application in their work. WASTECON, in essence, is a university for the solid waste industry. Now that we’re at point (B) together, let me explain. At WASTECON:
- Experts became professors, teachers imparting their knowledge and life experiences to those interested in a particular topic. Presenters shared research, best practices, implementation tactics, strategic plans, and lessons learned from their specialized field of expertise. Their backgrounds range from engineers and scientists, to specialists and consultants, to senior managers and c-level executives.
- Attendees became students, absorbing critical knowledge and information. The convention schedule provided a liberal arts format with technical sessions offering didactic lectures on wide-ranging topics, from facility operations and improvements, to waste diversion and recycling, to sustainability planning, to effective communications techniques, to renewable energy initiatives, and more.
- Individual technical divisions and subgroups (e.g.,Young Professionals) became fraternal social organizations where like-minded individuals assembled to discuss issues pertinent to their association to the solid waste industry. Personally, I enjoyed my involvement at the Young Professionals meeting and found the time to be rewarding both in terms of making new connections and expressing my thoughts and opinions on what SWANA might look like 30 years into the future.
- Technical Certifications became degrees, with ceremonial endings and recognition of achievements earned. Just as it’s important for medical professionals to continue expanding their knowledge of new advancements in technology and practices, so too it’s critical for those in the waste management industry to refine their expertise and stay up-to-date on industry developments and best practices.
- The Exhibit Hall became the “Student Life Center,” where vendors shared exciting new products, services, and trends in managing solid waste. The Exhibit Hall, whether by intent or happenstance, doubled as a gathering place for convention attendees. There was a buzz and energy about the space.
- The Ignite presentation became a pep rally, bolstering energy and excitement for the upcoming days at the convention. I appreciated the occasion to meet a few of the scheduled speakers in a relaxed, impromptu atmosphere. From a communications perspective, I enjoyed watching each presenter perform under the pressure of a succinct format and timed platform.
- Networking events became social activities that offered convention guests the opportunity to make lasting connections. The sense of community within the waste management industry amazes me. Before joining the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority and becoming a part of SWANA, I never would have guessed that such camaraderie exists within the industry. Personally, I met numerous individuals from all over the country, each with a different story and reason for attending WASTECON.
I only have one criticism of my WASTECON experience: There wasn’t enough time to participate in all of the technical sessions, meetings, and activities that interested me. A recommendation might be to record various technical sessions and offer those as downloadable audio files online. Interested parties such as myself, or those who were unable to attend the conference, could still benefit from the lecture.
Looking back on my first WASTECON convention, I treasure the experience. And gauging from the conversations with many other attendees, I’m not alone in that sentiment. Even the most experienced professional found an enriching experience at WASTECON. As is often the case, the professor learns just as much from the student as the knowledge they impart. So to the individual contemplating WASTECON 2013, I say: Don’t hesitate. Come! You’re making an investment in your future.
See you next year.