The launch of a new career-mentoring program for public works professionals headlined events as more than 6,000 members of the American Public Works Association met for their annual convention in Denver earlier this week.

The association has created the Donald C. Stone Center, named for the federal planner who founded APWA in 1937. It supports career education and organizes the association’s 96 newly inaugurated Fellows to mentor industry professionals.

“We inducted our first-ever group of industry Fellows at the convention, and they will be linked as mentors for a full year to people entering the careers program,” said APWA Executive Director Peter King. “All of the Fellows have 20-plus years experience in public works, and we’re asking that they give at least a half-hour a week to advise people who want to enhance their careers.”

King said the new program builds on the chapter leadership institutes to offer a flexible, integrated approach to learning leadership skills and presenting career options for technical or financial specialists who want to move into a management track. “We have an aging population in this industry, and we needed a more organized national program to bring new people along,” he said.

But foremost on the minds of many convention attendees was the ongoing issue of tight funding for public works projects. The convention theme of “Innovation, Motivation and Elevation” was carefully chosen, said 2011 APWA President Diane Linderman, director of public works, city of Richmond, Va., because innovation has been the key to survival for many public works directors.

“Our people have become very good at innovating through times of difficult funding,” she said. “Now sustainability has become the key to justifying the long-term value of projects and convincing taxpayers that their money isn’t just being spent for tomorrow.”

“It’s more a question of practicing asset management,” King added. “Public works officials need to take a more holistic approach to seeing their projects as just one part of creating healthy communities. If we can get an early presence at the planning table, we can cut costs and be creative in educating the public about the critical importance of keeping public infrastructure in good condition. That’s one of the key messages we tried to convey during the convention.”