Unemployment may be down from 2009, according to reports, but there are still more than 9 million people without a job. For most current job sectors, there are more applicants than positions; however, the water and wastewater sector might be an exception.
Last year’s Water & Wastes Digest State of the Industry Report revealed that the average age of water utility workers was 55, and more than one-third of surveyed respondents were 60 or older.
With at least 70 million baby boomers expected to retire before 2030, according to the Social Security Administration, a significant portion of the water and wastewater workforce will exit the field in the next decade, depleting the pool of experienced professionals.
The challenge is not just in the numbers alone. The industry traditionally has been very good at attracting lower-skilled workers and offering training for operators and maintenance and office support personnel. The job sector, however, is changing. Advanced technologies and more complex regulatory requirements are necessitating a more skilled workforce. The retirement of experienced mentors who can train new personnel further exacerbates the problem. There also is a lack of awareness of the field in general.
The anxiety can only grow higher as both retiring workforce and aging infrastructure force utilities to make tough budget decisions in order to attract new workers.
Joseph Gutenson, environmental support specialist for the Center for Water Resource Studies at Western Kentucky University, said this problem is even more prevalent in rural areas, where operators often face lower wages, fewer benefits and more responsibilities, which cause many small town operators to seek employment with larger utilities.
Overcoming these obstacles could lead to opportunities.
The need to invest in infrastructure improvements and meet new regulatory demands with fewer people is driving automation. Automation, however, demands a skilled workforce capable of operating and managing these new technologies.
While many systems are either manually operated or semi-automated, a number of utilities are transitioning to automation and using this opportunity to attract a more skilled workforce with competitive salaries, attractive benefits packages and job stability.
According to a Black & Veatch report, in order to attract the engineers, computer specialists and instrumentation technician graduates required to operate and maintain these facilities, progressive water utilities will have to offer a challenging and exciting technical environment with access to some of the newest tools.
These obstacles and opportunities in the water and wastewater field are quickly changing the face of the industry.
I am hopeful that these changes will lead to a better public understanding of the importance of maintaining our water infrastructure, not only by implementing the latest technologies, but also by investing in a skilled workforce.