From The Editor | October 29, 2018

Industry Gut-Check: How's Your Utility Workforce?

Pete Antoniewicz

By Pete Antoniewicz

In discussions with water industry suppliers and service organizations, the topic of a changing (i.e., aging) water workforce comes up quite frequently. Just how serious of a concern is it? How much of a threat does it pose to output quality and ongoing regulatory compliance at water treatment and wastewater treatment plants (WTPs/WWTPs) in the near future? Most important, what can be done to improve the situation?

Assessing The Status Quo

This Brookings Institute report and its executive summaryRenewing The Water Workforce: Improving Water Infrastructure And Creating A Pipeline To Opportunity — provides some interesting insights on water and utility workers. Water occupations employ nearly 1.7 million people — including all types of non-utility plumbers, construction laborers, supervisors, and administrators. More than 297,000 of them work specifically within water utilities, with one-third of them listed as WTP or WWTP operators. By contrast, the next largest water utility occupation is meter reading, representing less than 6 percent of all water utility workers.

  • Know Your Competitive Position. The U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics (BLS) profiles the relative competitive environment for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators by various state and metropolitan areas.
  • Experience vs. Book Learning. The majority of all workers in water occupations have either a high school diploma (38 percent) or some college experience without a degree (23 percent). Approximately 23 percent of them hold an associate degree or higher. Only 15 percent do not hold at least a high school diploma. Although a lack of higher education is less of an initial barrier, many water occupation jobs demand related work experience and a commitment to training. More than 75 percent require at least one year of related experience and 58 percent require two or more years of related experience before hire. This underscores the need for utilities to position themselves to compete for new employees with appropriate skills. After hire, most jobs (> 66 percent) involve a minimum of one year of on-the-job training, and 34 percent require more than four years of on-the-job training.
  • Recognize The Need For Young Talent. Unfortunately, the median age for water workers in general (42.8 years) and water treatment operators specifically (46.4 years) are both above the national average across all occupations (42.2 years). WTP/WWTP utilities are going to need to replace those workers sooner rather than later, because at the opposite end of the spectrum just 10.2 percent of water workers are under age 24, as compared to the 12.5 percent of all workers nationally.

Is There Hope For The Future?

According to WEF President Tom Kunetz, there is hope for filling the pipeline with the next generation of water utility workers — but it will require the right efforts to connect with them.

“It’s going to take new strategies to reach the next generation of the water sector workforce,” Tom says. “Expecting people to just show up and apply won’t cut it anymore. We in the water sector need to reach out to the next generation — into the high schools, into colleges, into trade schools — and show them that jobs in the water sector are exciting and are accessible.

“The next generation wants to know that their work has an impact on society,” he adds. “When it comes to making a positive impact on society and the planet, the water sector has it all:  protection of public health, protection of the environment, recovering resources, increasing green infrastructure, reusing water, producing renewable energy, preserving for future generations.”

Prepare For The Next Steps

Whatever the current status of a WTP/WWTP workforce, there are multiple resources that can be used to plan for, recruit, and support ongoing utility personnel needs.

  • Take An Honest Self-Assessment. This download of a PowerPoint presentation on Leadership and Succession Planning from a 2017 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference includes a good self-evaluation checklist and “to-do” list.
  • Promote Sustainability And Mentorship Within The Organization. With the known block of retirements being forecast between now and 2025, take advantage of every opportunity to record the institutional knowledge of experienced workers. To the degree possible, encourage mentorship between more experienced personnel and new hires, or encourage new hires to take advantage of industry resources such as membership in AWWA, state, or rural water associations to expand their knowledge.
  • Recruit With An Affinity For Water Utility Skills. Where possible, identify soon-to-be civilian military personnel who have received related technical training or demonstrated technical aptitude during their military careers. Connect with outplacement agencies who work with experienced, mechanically inclined workers who have experience with automated processes or systems but have been affected by recent plant shutdowns or downsizing. Take the message to high-school and tech-school Career Day events or general job fairs to expose the opportunities to people who are actively looking for a match to their mechanical interest or aptitude. Look to leverage state or local education or employment support programs.
  • Expand The Demographics. While females represent 46.8 percent of workers across all occupations nationwide, only about 15 percent of the overall water workforce and little more than 5 percent of water treatment operators are female. This is one example of an area where working with technically trained people who have past military experience can pay dividends in reaching a new audience.

Sell The Utility Market’s Advantages

Relative to general industry or manufacturing jobs, the appeal of water utility jobs can include job stability, the appeal of installing and operating newer, more sophisticated technology, the benefit of on-the-job training, municipal worker health benefits/pensions, and more.

  • Better Than Average Wages. The Brookings Institute study and BLS reports show that the water industry offers better than average pay for workers at the lower end of the pay scale. As compared to the national average across all occupations, water utility jobs pay 40 percent more at the 10th and 25th percentiles respectively. At the median hourly wage (50th percentile), they are still 22 percent more rewarding financially than the median hourly wage for all occupations nationally.
  • Job Security, And Potential For Advancement.  As compared to most industries, very few water utilities go “out of business” or experience routine waves of downsizing at the whims of the economy.  
  • Promote Special Opportunities. The AWWA offers free training for smaller water utilities (serving fewer than 10,000 customers) that can be used to entice new recruits and help get them up to speed quickly.