This year, I have attended numerous tradeshows and conferences. I’ve spoken at length with utility leaders and equipment provider executives, and I’ll continue that streak at WEFTEC.
But in those conversations, particularly with the utility workers, I’ve been asking the same question of all of them, “What’s keeping you up at night?”
The answers I ultimately receive end up in one of four categories: regulations, workforce, funding or aging infrastructure. Three of those — regulations, funding and aging infrastructure — have topped the list in our official surveys each year. But workforce has surged to the top of utility leader minds in the past two years.
Since the pandemic, it appears that it has become even harder to find workers, get them qualified for positions at treatment plants and have them trained to operate. Attempts to keep them have struggled. I’ve heard several anecdotes from utilities who do all of the above, only to lose that worker to a neighboring plant because they’ll pay just that little bit more.
But what I think ties all these together is how fundamental these issues are. These are not the grandiose issues of water reuse, one water, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. These are ground level issues impacting the day to day operations, the bread and butter of the industry.
While I don’t have the solution to the workforce woes, I do believe the advancement of technology is starting to play a role. Utilities can do more with less, curb non-revenue water and find savings. While that has often been reinvested into capital improvement planning, perhaps there are cases for operational savings that can be reinvested into salaries for the workers to retain employees because the values of environmental stewardship can only go so far.