Letters to the Editor

Jan. 15, 2015

W&WD received considerable feedback in response to Editorial Director Neda Simeonova’s November 2014 editorial letter, "Aging Workforce: Obstacles & Opportunities." It clearly is a buzzworthy topic that sparked a lot of great insights, so we have decided to include some of your letters below. 

I read with great interest your editorial letter, and found it to be a very good beginning to the discussion about the future of our industry. I say beginning, because your letter, like some others I have read on the subject, seems to focus mainly on the treatment portion of the water and wastewater fields. There are exciting things happening in technology that will require and enable a more “professional” and technologically astute workforce, but those positions and opportunities will be primarily in the treatment plants and offices. Computers and other technologies may be able to help in the field, with GIS, parts inventories, scheduling, and that kind of support, but ultimately, field maintenance in both water distribution and wastewater collection will still depend heavily on a workforce willing and able to get “down and dirty.” This applies equally to installation of new facilities as well as repair of existing facilities. A computer will not be able to ensure a quality installation, stop a leak or unclog a line. It is in these areas that the loss of skill and experience will be most keenly felt. And it will be these areas that must be filled by a fresh, young workforce willing to learn and do the myriad tasks that do not necessarily need technological acumen, but maybe a more flexible intelligence in common sense, mechanical skills and, yes, in physical abilities as well. These are the positions that will be the most difficult to fill. With the almost absolute desire for our children to get a college education, there will be fewer and fewer willing to join that portion of the workforce. The industry will be well served if it can attract and recruit trainees and/or apprentices for these jobs, so critical to the success of the industry.  Intelligence is still extremely important in every aspect of the field, but not all intelligence is technological. If (or when) the computers fail, we still need to be able to function, and return to “old school” methodologies to get the job done. The water and wastewater industry, perhaps more than most, requires a very wide range of skills and abilities, blending the physical with the technological, maintaining the knowledge of how and why things work the way they do, and why it is important to be a professional in this most critical industry.  We succeed the most when we are thought of the least. Everyone just assumes that our water is clean and healthy, and our “dirt” is handled in an efficient and environmentally beneficial way. This is accomplished best when everyone in the industry takes pride and ownership of their specialty, whichever end of the spectrum that may be.

— David Wilde, inspector, Infrastructure & Development Services, Town of Addison, Texas

I read with interest your article about the aging workforce. It seems this problem is very widespread— every manager I talk to tells the same story. The old guys are retiring and taking with them valuable information and resources. Young college graduates have no interest in working shiftwork, which unfortunately, most operations job require. Just to give you an idea of what we are dealing with here in south Louisiana, within the last five years alone, we have lost five class 4 operators with a combined experience of over 165 years! In return we hired eight new operator trainees who, as of now, have a combined experience of 12 years. The sad truth is that with a strong job market, like here in Louisiana, limited available resources for competitive salaries, and the public’s lack of interest in the water industry, we cannot attract qualified candidates. There are chemical plant operators an hour down the road from here making twice what our operators make. The double-edged sword is, with the new technologies, more stringent rules and regulations, and difficulty getting certified to operate, it requires a college degree. But try asking a recent college graduate to come work the  night shift for $20 per hour! Good luck—they won’t do it—but hopefully we will see operators’ salaries increase in the very near future. Even then, it will take new thinking on the part of management to get qualified workers in these old guys’ spots before it becomes a crisis. I myself am looking to retire in a couple of years along with three more operators. Our middle management team will be pushed to the limit trying to fill the spots vacated by these retirees, and it will be this way for years into the future. I agree with your last statement and would like to add that hopefully we will have the means to invest in a skilled workforce. Thanks for the article.

— Scott Thibodeaux, purification division manager, Lafourche Parish Water District No. 1, Lockport, La.

We have been planning for this for almost 10 years. At that time we started our Succession Planning. We are about halfway through the worst part of our ordeal, retiring 60% of our water treatment plant operators over a six-year period. In 2007, the department had 13.35 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees with over 230 years of combined experience. Today we have 11.7 FTE with only two new operators and two part-time operators. The most significant difference between then and now is the improvements we have made in our systems and the consolidations of systems. In addition to that, we have made some upgrades to a few of our treatment plants, making them more automated and less complex. Two of the retirees have been brought back to work part time while we train new operators.

— Don Perkins, water superintendent, Tuolumne Utilities District, Sonora, Calif.

Just a [few] things we are doing to try to keep staff levels up:

  • Serve on technical committees with local college/university on its one- and two-year programs;
  • Teach at local university (get to look over students before they start looking for jobs);
  • Support co-op programs (try the students out before offering them a job);
  • Work with the regulator (www.eocp.org) to keep awareness of the options of working in the utilities in front of students, etc.;
  • Try to become a training/stepping stone for people coming out of school to move to higher certification, etc.;
  • Keep updating succession plans; and
  • Serve on various boards to keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening in the industry.

Sun Peaks Utilities is a small private utility without the major HR benefits of large municipal utilities, so we have to be creative. We need to sell the lifestyle (ski passes, golf passes and mountain bike passes, etc.), provide lots of training, flexible days off, etc. Our utility staff has to deal with water treatment and distribution, wastewater treatment and collection systems as well as a propane gas distribution system and some other duties as assigned. Our systems range from Level II to Level III, so we require a certain level of experience. We are only one hour away for a municipality that always needs more certified operators (they have level IV systems) and can offer much better benefits. 

We generally try to hire two-year graduates in utility training, but also hire outside the field and train internally. Our biggest challenge is finding equipment operators, so we contract out a lot of work such as pipe installation and repair.

Creative thinking outside the box is critical to keeping staff levels where they should be. For more info on us, visit www.sunpeaksutilities.com. 

— Pat Miller, director, Utility Services, Chief Operator – Level III, Sun Peaks Utilities Co., Ltd., B.C., Canada 

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