By Joel Hall
The Georgia Utility Contractors Association (GUCA), Inc., recently named the Clayton County Water Authority's Herb Etheridge as it's 2009-2010 associate member of the year.
Etheridge was recognized by the professional organization for promoting the interests of utility contractors state-wide, his commitment to safety education, and his volunteer work.
He was honored during GUCA's annual conference in June in Myrtle Beach, S.C., according to the organization's executive director, Vikki McReynolds. She said the award is given by GUCA's president to individuals who have gone above and beyond their duties in helping GUCA.
"There are a lot of regulatory agencies that we have to adhere to, and we can't be everywhere," McReynolds said. "We always like to have a seat at the table. He [Etheridge] has always been one of those people to step up to the occasion ... the same person volunteering, helping out with things, going downtown to the Capitol to lobby for something on behalf of the industry.
"OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency), and all these boards we sit on, they always like to hear from the field," McReynolds said. "He's always been there to provide that voice."
McReynolds said Etheridge has worked for the Clayton County Water Authority for 35 years, coming up the ladder from laborer to manager of distribution and conveyance, overseeing 108 of the authority's 370 employees. Etheridge, she said, is always willing to share his knowledge of the industry, so that it can work better as a whole.
"It can be a very dangerous industry," she said. "If I am a utility contractor, and I hit an underground gas main and it blows up, that hurts everybody. He takes that expertise that he has had for all those years, and he doesn't mind sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of all of it, and show people how to do the right thing."
Judy Turpin, president of Morrow-based Turpin, Inc., Horizontal Boring Company, and the 2009-2010 GUCA president, was also one of Etheridge's first employers. She said that as a teenager, he was one of her first employees, and it was there that he was introduced to sewer and water work, and learned how to operate a backhoe.
"It's almost like a first-grade teacher watching their student go onto college and excel," Turpin said. "Anything worth doing is worth doing well ... that is something he has always believed. He's not a know-it-all person. He listens and acts on what he has learned."
Etheridge, who was born and raised in Forest Park, said that while he works on behalf of many utility contractors, he enjoys bringing that knowledge back to the water authority.
"I've given something to the organization, but I always feel like I am bringing more back to the water authority," he said. "It's an opportunity to meet people, to learn more about the way they do businesses, to learn more about the legislative process. Most importantly, it is to educate myself. We have to know what the safety precautions are to be safe, so you go home at the end of the day."
He said he derives the most joy as a member of GUCA's Education Committee, where he participates in career fairs around the state, in which high school students are introduced to the construction field through conservation and live demonstrations of equipment.
"Through our educator committee, we get to reach out to a lot of high school kids," he said. "In the old days, they used to call utility workers ditch diggers. [However,] it's engineering, it's computers, it's running heavy equipment that is highly specialized. You might not be college material, you might not be management, but you can make a great career in this business. It's great to steer somebody toward a career."
Water Authority General Manager Mike Thomas said Etheridge's experience often makes him a bridge between the worker, and upper management. He said Etheridge's award shows that his influence is felt outside of the company.
"He's done everything from being down in the ditches, operating equipment, to managing large construction contracts," Thomas said. "He is able to provide a connect between the contractor and the owner. It improves communication between those two groups. It [the award] just shows the respect they have for him."