Episode 3: Diversity, Inclusion & Environmental Sustainability w/ UNITIL’s Sara Sankowich

Welcome to the Third Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management! 

This week we are excited to introduce our next guest, Sara Sankowich, Director of Sustainability and Shared Services at Unitil.  Phil has had the honor of working with Sara for several years and has gotten to see the leadership that she contributes to the utility vegetation management industry (UVM). Our conversation for this episode is going to delve into Sara’s passion for environmental sustainability, diversity, and inclusion.

Sara’s Leadership Role in Utility Vegetation Management

Some of the things that Sara’s role at Unitil encompasses are sustainability reporting and the forestry operations group – the company’s traditional utility vegetation management. She also works with Unitil’s fleet and facilities group which has a large impact on Unitil’s own emissions and carbon footprint.

Fun Fact: Sara began her career at Unitil working in the forestry operations group.

In addition, Sara is chair of the Professional Development Certification Program Committee. In the past, she served as President of the Utility Arborist Association and the New England Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (NEC-ISA).

Bridging the Gap Between Sustainability and Utility Vegetation Management

Sara’s involvement in sustainability within the UVM space came to be because she “really wanted to find a way to be able to show that there is value in that and there’s value to the utility as well as the communities and the population as a whole.” This opened the door to sustainability reporting and Sara began to explore the ways Unitil could start to tell its own story about sustainability. Since then, Unitil has expanded on its sustainability reporting and established goals about how they impact the environment through its vegetation management work. Sara believes that there is an “opportunity for other UVM managers out there to talk to that department and really link up and find out what information might be valuable from a vegetation management standpoint to disclose or to tell the story.” Implementing a sustainable approach to a vegetation program may have some upfront costs, but Sara says, “the return is greater.”

Utility Vegetation Management Education

The debate around having qualified vegetation specialists still exists today and resourcing tends to be a challenge in the industry. With the addition of the extra layer of sustainability in vegetation management, Tej points out the this will “increase the complexity and the hurdle for some of these folks to have the right expertise.” However, Sara thinks that if we can do a better job of helping the next generation that values being able to act on climate change and sustainability to better understand how utility vegetation management can impact that then “that opens up our workforce and then we close that gap of needed workers.” Although extensive training is needed for that upcoming workforce, “being able to set out a career path and training at each one of those levels really means that we can take someone who has a passion and give them the tools and skills to be able to excel in our industry and not only excel at the level that they are but be ready to take on the next level.” Currently, there are programs that the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) offers including field-level worker training and professional development for workers that don’t necessarily need to go to school and get a degree to gain valuable skills and contribute to the industry. As for the future of education in UVM, Sara hopes that the Unitil Event Management Professional Development Program will prove to be an important credential to have. The program helps “you learn strategic thinking, you learn leadership and all of the qualities that are necessary to be operating at a business level.” Sara says that this is “a big piece of how we transfer knowledge in our industry and how we prepare the next generation of leaders.” Her biggest goal is to be able to create a “bigger, more diverse workforce that’s really making a difference and loves coming to work every day.”

Transitioning from a Large to Small Utility

There can be a challenge that comes from switching to a smaller utility after working with a large one as Sara did, but Sara says that Unitil has been “supportive of my [Sara’s] engagement in a lot of these professional development programs, and committees.” There have been a lot of benefits that have allowed Sara to make a difference and apply her skillset. Expanding into sustainability is one example of how Sara’s involvement in committees has allowed her to explore spaces that she is most passionate about.

Diversity and Inclusion: Women in UVM

An avid advocate for a more inclusive workforce, Sara has played an instrumental role in starting the Women in Utility Vegetation Management Workshop. As a woman in the field, Sara has personally struggled with setting perceived limitations and doubting herself at times. However, she has learned that it is important to remember to not limit yourself and be confident in your own skills. In Sara’s own words, “I think it [UVM] is a fantastic place for women. Diversity in so many ways is really necessary for the best possible future. The more diversity we can bring and celebrate the way people think differently, the better it is.” The workshop is meant to elevate women and work towards creating a more supportive workplace that will uplift and encourage women to want a career in UVM.

Managing Customer Relationships in UVM

Whether it is homeowners or businesses, customer perception of vegetation management and the relationship they have with utilities continues to be a challenge. Unitil solves this issue by working with communities and providing them with guidance. For instance, the company connects communities together so they can have a clearer picture of their own tree care. When communities take the time to proactively manage their trees and resources, it helps utilities because they are able to act as partners and work together with these communities. On the other hand, a way that utilities can connect with individual homeowners is by providing them with a robust library of educational tools about tree care and maintenance. For example, Unitil has created a storm resiliency program that removes risk to critical areas. Using technology to communicate with customers about their issues has also been a great tool and facilitator in building that connection. Utilities are continuing to refine their communication skills to better connect with and help customers. Sara finds the work that comes from bringing value to communities fulfilling and hopes to continue to be a part of that.

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