Water Workforce for the Future
By Jillian Kiss
Ensuring that all Americans have safe water to drink and essential wastewater services is a top priority for our industry. Each day communities and businesses depend on the water infrastructure we support for their daily routines. Behind each of these daily routines are the hundreds of thousands of skilled workers that comprise the water workforce.
Currently, water utilities face challenges in recruiting, training, and retaining employees. These challenges are exacerbated with roughly one-third of the water sector workforce eligible to retire in the next 10 years. The country’s water infrastructure is representative of this significant opportunity. From pipes and pumps to rivers and lakes, water systems are in urgent need of repair, maintenance, and restoration.
The country’s infrastructure assets are at the end of their useful life. At the same time, water professionals are in relatively short supply, for public utilities, private engineering firms, and a wide range of other employers. Signaling that while infrastructure jobs offer considerable promise, the supply of workers doesn’t match the demand.
There are likely hundreds of thousands to millions water professionals directly involved in designing, constructing, operating and governing US water infrastructure. From water utilities, to specialty trade contractors, to heavy and civil engineerin construction, these workers carry out specialized activities crucial to the long-term operation and maintenance of the country’s drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and green infrastructure facilities.
Workers in these jobs earn competitive wages and, in some cases, face lower educational barriers for entry. They develop extensive knowledge and transferable skills that cut across multiple disciplines. And the coming wave of retirements and other employment shifts in the infrastructure sector means a huge gap to fill for utilities and other water employers, and prospective workers can find long-term careers.
At WEFTEC, I participated in a round table discussion on workforce issues. While understanding the consultant’s side of the issue I was introduced to the same recruitment issues being faced by utilities. Of my round table’s eight participants, seven were representing a public utility. This distribution was similar at most of the other dozen or so tables. We discussed how the traditional system of hiring, taking several weeks to months to onboard a new hire, is not sustainable anymore in this competitive environment when several offers are on the table. We discussed how utility wages were not competitive with other low skill jobs.
Just as it is difficult to recruit new staff, it is just as difficult to retain existing staff in this environment. We discussed the difficulties of hybrid work where certain white-collar staff could work from home and blue-collar staff have to be onsite and causing a general displeasure between groups. And we discussed the need to break down “silos” of particular groups of people within an organization that from an outsider’s perspective is unreachable due to position or age or gender so there is a sense of a unified council and a feeling of belonging. Without that, a staff member could be very easily exit your organization. In cases where compensation or benefits weren’t competitive, an employee stayed with their employer because of the welcoming environment, the sense of intentionality, and their clear vision of advancement opportunities.
Utilities and other water employers need to empower staff, adjust existing procedures, and pilot new efforts in support of the water workforce. Employers need to develop platforms
for a broad range of employees to become partners and hold consistent dialogues so that feedback between “silos” can be exchanged.
WEF and other industry advocate organizations have sponsored workforce- related research initiatives. Some common themes being identified and acted on include: