Jan 24, 2022

The State of the Water Workforce

Putting industry retirements into numerical perspective

Clarence Wittwer
Clarence Wittwer, owner and chief operating officer of Wittwer Environmental

When I first entered the water industry in 1991, I had the pleasure of working for many leaders and treatment plant operators that had first entered the field around the founding of the Clean Water Act in 1972. These were some of the finest water professionals that I have ever known, and most have since retired.

For those of you that were doing that math (you forgot to carry that 1), yes...that was 49 years ago. If you are still focused on the math, then you also noticed that it has been 30 years since my entry into our industry. While I am positive that my own history holds little interest for most, I do think that it is important to note that in this 49 year span we have seen most of one generation of water professionals retire and we are on the cusp of the next wave of retirements.

You have seen the “Silver Tsunami” articles by now. Some of you have read them, shaking your head with sadness, others have read the stories nodding your head in agreement. Either direction that your head was moving, you were probably concerned, and you should be.

In Texas alone, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (the licensing agency for water and wastewater operators in Texas) reported this year at the Texas Water Utilities Association annual conference that more than 67% of the more than 30,000 licensed operators in Texas are eligible for retirement right now.

This statistic gets even scarier when you realize that this estimate is based on the age when operators first received their license. If you consider that many enter the field as second careers, this number is even more frightening as the number of professionals currently eligible is most likely even larger.

So far, these are just some scary numbers from Texas, but what about the rest of the nation? In 2018 the New England Water Utilities Association reported that they were also looking at around 65% or more of their workforce eligible for retirement.

Advertisement

The AWWA “State of The Industry Report” in 2019 stated that based on their survey results, more than 35% of the water and wastewater professionals across the nation were eligible for retirement within the next decade. Another interesting and scary stat is that the average age of those in the business was 48.

A 2015 State of the Industry Report from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection stated that approximately 65% or more — emphasis on more — of both the licensed water and wastewater operators in their state were over 50.

Before I left the City of Houston Wastewater Section of Public Works in late 2018, I requested a report from human resources on the retirement eligibility of the nearly 800 employees that were responsible for 39 water reclamation facilities and almost 400 sewage lift stations.

I was not surprised to learn that of the 788 employees, more than 70% were eligible for immediate retirement. Think about that for just a moment. At any given time, more than 500 professionals responsible for the operation of billions of dollars in assets and the health of nearly 2.5 million residents could leave at any given moment.

While you are silently gulping at those numbers, what if I told you that the average age of the more than 370 employees of the Great Lakes Water Authority (which serves more than 30% of the State of Michigan) was 50 to 60 years old...in 2016? Can you run the math for what that looks like five years later?

The numbers are scary, but an important question is, what are we going to do about it? Think on that, and I will return next month with the next installment in this series where we will talk about some ideas and examples of how we can handle this scary problem.

About the author

Clarence Wittwer is the owner and chief operating officer of Wittwer Environmental. He can be reached at clarence@wittwerenvironmental.com.

expand_less