The Workforce Gap
Water agencies and associations face a future full of “dirty jobs” and a shrinking pool of qualified candidates.
As the recession drags on and high unemployment rates continue, it should be good news that both the drinking water and wastewater industries are anticipating a growing demand for workers in a wide variety of positions and skills. Or is it? As agencies confront issues such as an aging workforce, new technology, limited budgets, federal mandates, and crumbling infrastructure, many are seeing this as both an opportunity and an urgent matter that needs effective programs and policies to avoid a serious workforce gap.
Keeping up with retirement and an aging workforce are major concerns for members of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Denver, CO, according to Greg Kail, director of public affairs, and he notes that the association’s 2010 State of the Industry report identifies workforce issues as one of the top five topics of concern for AWWA members. In fact, it’s a problem that has been rising in importance after industry research from 2005 revealed that the average age of water utility workers was 45 years old, and the typical retirement age was 56.
“That gets our attention when about 40% of our workforce is retiring in the next 10 years,” notes Kail. “The impact of the recession may delay some retirements, but people of retirement age aren’t getting any younger, and when the economy does recover we will need a new workforce to continue to deliver water services.” In a study done by the AWWA and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) Alexandria, VA, the highest level of need for non-administrative employees was in the area of certified plant operators in both drinking and wastewater plants.
Certified Operators Worth More Than a Dime a Dozen
Filling positions at the operator level is an ongoing challenge for Cherita King, a human resource manager at The Water Works Board of the City of Birmingham, AL. The agency serves 600,000 people in five counties within the Birmingham area, and, with a history that dates back to 1873 (just two years after the founding of Birmingham), it would be reasonable to assume that the utility wouldn’t have to work too hard to attract qualified applicants. After all, these jobs offer stability and growth potential. Nonetheless, the recruiting program begins with making high school students aware of the opportunities at the Water Works Board.
As one part of the Board’s outreach, it runs a summer Young Water Ambassadors program that employs 100 high school juniors and seniors over a period of six weeks. Students learn about various facets of the water system, including detecting and repairing leaks, reading water bills and water meters, and testing water quality in the Water Works EnviroLab. “Right now, I would say the majority of our certified water operators are baby boomers and close to retirement,” says King. “And because certified operators for the water industry don’t come a dime a dozen, we are trying to recruit people and get them trained so we have people in place to take over.”
The next step for King will be an apprentice program to help ensure that new employees attain certification. King’s department is in the development stage of a program and getting help from the Employment & Training Administration, a federal agency that administers government job training and worker dislocation programs, federal grants to states for public employment service programs, and unemployment insurance benefits. These services are primarily provided through state and local workforce development systems with offices in 42 states (www.doleta.gov).
Offering much more than a temporary summer class, the apprentice program will provide information to junior college and high school students that lead directly to a true job experience. “We feel like the apprenticeship program is a great opportunity and also we are looking at partnering with some local junior colleges to develop a curriculum around the water industry,” says King. “Then, students could get the skills we need prior to coming into employment at our water treatment facilities, because our greatest challenge is in getting operators certified.”
High School Students Find Green Jobs
The ability to pass a state’s certification exam is critical to developing a viable staffing program, according to Jane Downing, associate director of Drinking Water Policy at the EPA’s New England Office, US EPA Region 1, Boston, MA. Moreover, Downing notes that the EPA shares the concerns of AWWA members and has identified vocational colleges as an excellent resource for attracting and educating a new generation of water industry workers.
“We have a terrific program in Massachusetts that has been put together through the work of Massachusetts Water Works Association and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection,” says Downing. “There are a number of vocational and technical high schools throughout Massachusetts, and now there are even high schools that have drinking water operator training programs. So we have had high school students that were able to take the exam for certification, and we think that’s terrific that the high school has a curriculum in an area that can place students in green jobs.”
Vocational and community colleges aren’t the only educational resource for the next generation of water system operators. Many state colleges have programs, such as the California State University Sacramento, College of Engineering and Computer Science, where the Office of Water Programs provides distance learning courses for persons interested in the operation and maintenance of drinking water and wastewater facilities. “This is the premier training program for operators in the US,” says Kurt Ohlinger, associate director at the Office of Water Programs. “We publish all the training manuals used in our courses and throughout the country, and training programs and community colleges.” The Office sells about 50,000 training manuals per year, and the distance learning program enrolls about 14,000 students per year.
Students come mostly from the US and Canada, but the program has a percentage of international students as well. The training is available as correspondence or computer-based courses and is designed as direct preparation for taking state certification exams. The course schedule allows up to six months to finish, but Ohlinger notes that he has seen students finish in as fast as six to eight weeks. Just six weeks to train for a certification test that leads to employment as a plant operator in a stable industry would seem to be an attractive option, but the opportunities don’t stop at operations, according to Frank Loge, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Davis, CA, and the director for the Center for Water Energy Efficiency.
Major Revisions to the Clean Water Act?
Loge predicts that issues related to the aging infrastructure will drive growth in construction and technology, and importantly, there will be a demand for new skills and education. “The vast majority of distribution systems, the pumps, the tanks, and anything associated with a water utility that was built more than 20 years ago and designed with that lifespan in mind, needs to be replaced,” says Loge. “Then there is the EPA, which has revised the Clean Water Act in the last five to 10 years and will probably make a couple of major revisions soon that are related to distribution systems.”
Loge speaks from firsthand experience. As part of a research team sponsored by the EPA, he helped to analyze the results of a recently completed study known as the Water and Health Trial for Enteric Risk (WAHTER). “That study found that there are, in fact, leaks that draw pathogens from the soil or wherever the distribution system is located, and people get sick,” explains Loge. “So distribution systems need to be repaired or replaced.”
Of course, the industry is well aware of problems with aging infrastructure, but the issue of pathogens will put new demands on the workforce, because the vast majority of water systems in US draw from groundwater and typically do not have disinfection systems. “You're looking at the complete revision of how water is treated in 80% of the distribution systems in the United States,” says Loge. “That’s going to be a huge undertaking, because when you change how the water system operates, it adds layers of complexity such as new pipe, new pumps, and a new disinfection system. So the workforce that maintains the system has to be retrained to deal with the new technology.”
Although the EPA has not yet issued their revisions, changes are already in motion in Wisconsin, the state that hosted WAHTER, says the study’s leader, Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist, now at the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service. The study was conducted while Borchardt was a research scientist at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, Marshfield, WI. “I found out that Wisconsin’s water treatment code is being rewritten, and they are going to require mandatory disinfection, which has never been the case before,” says Borchardt. “The code will also allow ultraviolet light for treating groundwater, and that’s a big deal, because now communities have another option aside from chlorination.”
The EPA has more plans for such studies. In March 2010, the agency announced “A New Approach to Protecting Drinking Water and Public Health,” and among its ongoing goals, it listed: “Collaborate with universities, technology developers, and the private sector to develop water- and energy-efficient treatment technologies that can reliably reduce health risks and control the types of contaminants that confront utilities today and into the future.”
Small Communities Will Be Hard Hit
According to Borchardt, those new technologies will be especially tough on small communities. He noted that most of the rural communities in Wisconsin have populations of less than 10,000 people and that those responsible for delivering safe drinking water often have additional responsibilities. “They run things such as wastewater plants, park operations, and snow removal,” says Borchardt. “We had one operator in the City of Crandon [WI] that was also responsible for digging graves in the city cemetery. So it’s a lot to ask for these people that have all these responsibilities to be fully knowledgeable about all the ins and outs of drinking water.” And if 80% of the nation’s utilities do adopt new disinfection technology, it may also be a lot to ask of these workers in regards to staying with their jobs in smaller rural communities.
At least that’s a concern of Kevin McCray, CAE, executive director of the 13,000-member National Ground Water Association (NGWA), Westerville, OH. “You have retirement and also the fact that the larger water utilities go down to the next tier in their region for help in personnel,” says McCray. “And that leaves mid-size utilities looking, so they go down the next tier and there’s no one left at the smallest towns because there’s no inflow of workers looking to be water systems operators.”
Research from EPA backs up McCray’s concerns. The agency reports that there are over 12,500 municipal wastewater treatment plants that discharge less than 1 million gallons per day operating in the US. Over half of these plants have sophisticated activated sludge treatment technologies that require highly developed operating skills. Yet, operator turnover rates at small wastewater treatment plants are high, budgets and salaries are low, and community support is lacking.
A survey of NGWA members showed that there’s also a critical issue in getting a qualified workforce work for construction companies and services that provide drilling and pumping. “The scientists and engineers in our manufacturing sectors are seeing challenges as well,” says McCray. “For the trade side involving construction of water systems, it’s hard work in the outdoors that can be dirty. Often that’s a hard sell to somebody contemplating the exposure to outdoors in northern climates and doing something with a possibility of working in the mud.”
A 2010 survey by Manpower Inc., Milwaukee, WI, shows that workers aren’t necessarily discriminating against colder climates. Manpower polled 35,000 employers across 36 countries and territories to determine the impact of talent shortages on today’s labor markets. The results of the fifth annual Talent Shortage Survey revealed that 31% of employers worldwide are having difficulty filling positions, and, not surprisingly, skilled trades topped the global list of difficult jobs to fill, with technicians (primarily production/operations, engineering or maintenance) ranking third.
In the past, immigrants have often helped to fill workforce shortages in the US, but that may not be the case with the current demand and competition as reflected in the Manpower survey. Then too, Downing warns that there are new technologies and other growth areas to consider.
“The industry is evolving with new subject matter such as green infrastructure, water efficiency, and energy efficiency. And it’s not just a demand for technicians. We also have community outreach, watershed, marketing, filtration, and meter reading.”
Bureau of Labor Predicts Double-Digit Growth Rates
Moreover, the pace of growth in these areas isn’t expected to peak anytime soon. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, environmental engineering technicians are expected to have 30% employment growth between 2008 and 2018. In fact, the demand outstrips that of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators, where growth is expected at 20% for the same time period. Is it unreasonable to assume that the market for environmental technicians will attract potential workers away from positions as operators?
All told, the industry is facing a critical challenge, but there are solutions. Many agencies and associations are creating programs in mentoring, certification training, apprenticeships, and curriculum support for educators. The NGWA recently developed an online career mentorship program and has an initiative to make high school guidance counselors aware of career opportunities in groundwater.
Help for Disadvantaged Communities
The EPA is taking an aggressive stance, and Downing notes that her agency is in a unique position to bring employment opportunities to youth in disadvantaged communities, so the EPA is working closely with schools in such areas. “There’s a lot of material for teachers to go through, and we’re working with them to develop training modules and powerful presentations. The other thing we’re doing is supporting internships so students and graduate from these programs get onsite experience and inspiration to continue to become operators in the future.”
Looking beyond the employees to the actual employers, the EPA is focused on ensuring that there are adequate facilities for the next generation of operators. In fact, Section 104(g)(1) of the agency’s Clean Water Act is for the purpose of providing an adequate supply of trained personnel to operate and maintain existing and future treatment works. To that end, it finances pilot programs in cooperation with state and interstate agencies, municipalities, and educational institutes. Targeted areas include: development, training, and retraining of people in the fields of operation, maintenance, and security of treatment works and its related activities. Also, the Clean Water Act authorizes funding for the Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator On-Site Assistance Training Program. Federal funding for the program is administered through grants to states, often in cooperation with educational institutions or non-profit agencies.
The AWWA and the WEF have extensive educational programs and, in November 2009, they both partnered with the US Department of Labor and the EPA to release the Water Sector Competency Model. It defines the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities for prospective water professionals and encourages careers in the water sector: http://careeronestop.org/CompetencyModel/pyramid.aspx?WS=Y.
For rural water agencies, the National Rural Water Association, Duncan, OK, has many programs related to workforce issues. Among them, a new educational product from the association’s Water University, www.wateruniversity.org, offers a Utility Management Certification designed to provide skill sets that operators can use to advance to management positions. Such skills include public relations, financial planning, ethics, human resources, and others not seen in typical operator certification programs.
Mentoring Programs Can Attract Job Seekers
A mentoring program can also help with advancement and provides an attractive benefit to job seekers evaluating a career in the water industry, says Stuart Karasik, training program manager at the City of San Diego’s Public Utilities Water Branch, San Diego, CA. “Some type of career development, mentorship, and internal support is very important,” says Karasik. “In our program, employees have a limited period of time to advance to certain job levels, and they more than met those expectations. You need commitment from both the employee and the organization, and the understanding that this is serious. It can’t be something where they sit down with their best friend and just talk once a week.”
In anticipation of future management needs, San Diego is also starting a succession program. “The AWWA did a study showing that a significant percentage of the higher-level positions and more senior positions in management are going to retire in the next five or 10 years,” notes Karasik. “So you have to make sure that when your chief operator leaves there is someone to fill the vacuum.”
As a municipal utility, San Diego has to follow civil service rules, so succession planning isn’t a trivial task. “You can’t target individuals for promotion, because most positions in civil service are competitive and people compete for the positions,” explains Karasik. “We try to get our people trained and make sure that they have experience, so when a position does become available we have an appropriate pool of applicants.”
Ultimately, having an appropriate pool of applicants as a goal should apply to the full range of the water industry’s workforce. From entry level operators to senior management, there’s no doubt that water agencies will see attrition through retirement. When combined with the demands of new technology, limited budgets, and federal mandates, it’s clear that the industry needs to offer more than just a job. As evidenced by the agencies and associations that spoke about their experiences for this article, the industry must compete by selling tomorrow’s workforce on the importance of water and the opportunities of a lifelong career, ensuring the reliable delivery of a product critical to the public’s health and well being.
Author's Bio: Writer Ed Ritchie specializes in energy, transportation, and communication technologies.