Clarity of vision

Shift Manager and 27-year employee Sabrina Winkfield. Photo by Mike Uva.

Sabrina Winkfield didn’t know much about what goes into treating wastewater, although she did grow up with a love of Lake Erie. “Most Saturdays my family would go to the lake and end up at Captain Frank’s on the East 9th Street Pier for ice cream,” she said.

In high school, she explored optometry as a career. “I worked in an optical lab for a couple years, but I was discouraged because my boss didn’t make a lot of money, and he’d been doing it for 20 years.” A family friend suggested work in the trades and directed Winkfield to the Building Laborers’ Local 310. She joined up and worked as a laborer at the steel mill and in some local schools, but the recession in the early ’90s made it difficult to stay employed.

She used that down time to earn a stationary engineer’s degree from West Side Institute of Technology and became licensed to operate a steam boiler. She applied at the Sewer District and was hired as an operator at Westerly, the treatment plant where she has worked for 27 years.

“I had never been in an industrial environment, and it was intimidating initially, just so unfamiliar,” she recalled. “For years, I was the only female operator.”

Winkfield took advantage of financial and academic opportunities to advance their careers at the Sewer District. “The District has always promoted advancement through its Tuition Assistance Program,” Winkfield said. The in-house electrical apprenticeship program gave her the opportunity to learn a trade, and she also went on to earn her Class III wastewater license.

Winkfield worked as a plant electrician for several years before becoming Shift Supervisor in 2005, which broadened her responsibilities. “I was exposed to so many different things,” she said. “I was doing outreach with the middle schools, teaching math to new employees taking Wastewater Prep Courses, and working with students from Central State University through the Louis Stokes scholarship program.”

Sabrina Winkfield portrait
Photo by Thomas Dang.

“Talk to people who have your best interests at heart. Follow through on the opportunities afforded to you.”

She continued to advance her own career through Cleveland State University’s Leadership Academy and offerings at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School. In 2007, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Public Safety Management. (She says she is “very safety conscious.”) Today, as Shift Manager, Winkfield oversees projects and makes sure her staff have the supplies they need to get things done. “I always have my radio and phone on me,” she said.

Reflecting on the Sewer District’s fiftieth year, Sabrina noted the ongoing transition away from analog into digital technology in recent decades. “When I started, everything was push-button or manual,” she said. “You’d walk out to the equipment to check the position of a gauge and make adjustments. Now, we do a lot of that work on a computer.”

She also commended communications efforts to bring the once under-the-radar work of the Sewer District into the public consciousness.

“When I started, nobody knew about the Sewer District,” she said. “Even my dad would say, ‘My baby works at the Water Department.’ I enjoy seeing more people being familiar with the business that we do and that we’re doing a good job, because at one time people took it for granted.”

Sabrina has a focus on the newer plant employees and their careers, encouraging them to pursue their work goals and find their niche at the District. “Talk to people who have your best interests at heart,” she said. “Follow through on the opportunities afforded to you. You can be great in whatever path you take here.”

Story by Michael Uva. Portraits by Thomas Dang. Find your future on our team: neorsd.org/careers

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Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

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Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH