Not Where, But Who

Feb. 25, 2022

Rather than looking for where to find replacements, the industry should focus on who those replacements will be

About the author:

Clarence Wittwer is the owner and chief operating officer of Wittwer Environmental. Wittwer can be reached at [email protected].

I know that in the last column I said I was going to return this month with some tips, tricks and other things to help with the recruitment issues. Well, I lied. Not intentionally but I re-read last month’s dribble and realized some more context was needed.

Last month I hit you with scary numbers and stats that had half of you cringing and gripping your chair arm rests and the other half of you saying, “Yeah fat man, tell us something we do not know.” Keeping that in mind, I am going to share some personal, on-the-spot research that I have been conducting.

In October 2021, I was a guest speaker at the Texas Water Utilities Association Regional “School” in Beaumont, Texas, and I was speaking on this very topic. One of the exercises I insist on doing at the start of each session is asking attendees to raise their hands as each one of these conditions applies:

  • “How many of you have been in this industry a year or less?” Less than half a dozen raises their hands.
  • “How many have been doing this between a year and five years?” About another half dozen raise hands.
  • “10 years to 15?” Now we are starting to see more hands in the air.
  • “15 to 20?” The hands begin to double.
  • “20-25?” So many hands up now.
  • “30 years or more?” Suddenly I am staring at more than 20 people with their hands up.

Just in case you missed the overall point, more than two-thirds of the attendees had been in the industry more than 25 years.

Fast forward to the Texas Water Utilities Association West Texas Regional School in Lubbock, Texas, and I gave same pitch to an entirely different classroom and led with the exact same exercise. The outcome was nearly identical. Out of more than 30 people in that class, greater than 70% had been in the business for more than 30 years.

Sadly, this exercise can be repeated at water and wastewater industry related events around our nation and in most cases, the results will become even more staggering.

We are right to be concerned on the operations side, but few of us realize that our colleagues on the vendor and manufacturer side are facing the same harsh reality. Well-known industry giants producing some of the most well-known equipment are also looking at retirement eligibility rates of more than 60%. Many have key personnel retiring on a regular basis who are taking decades of knowledge with them. The number of fresh faces entering the industry just cannot match those leaving. So where are the replacements?

I have a better question: Who are the replacements?

By now, many of you reading this have heard a presenter or author reference recruiting millennials to replace this vacuum. This is so far off of the mark that it troubles me when I hear it. Nearly two years ago, millennials started turning 40. Read that again: 40. I started when I was 18. I am 48 now and have more than 30 years in this business. If even a small fraction of millennials started young like me, then there is an entirely different group facing retirement soon, which only adds to the urgency. How many of you have sat in a progress, design or even a sales meeting and heard a co-worker complaining about millennials? Feel free to remind them that many millennials are now 40. If they are not the bosses yet, they will be soon.


So where do we go? What do we do? My short answer to close out this month: Generation Z. This generation by nature offers so much to our industry. Next month I will discuss the generational divide, some of the characteristics of the generations and specifically some studies that show why Gen Z is an ideal candidate for the water industry.

About the Author

Clarence Wittwer

Clarence Wittwer is the owner and chief operating officer of Wittwer Environmental. He can be reached at [email protected].