Sep 02, 2016

Have You Hugged a Water Operator Lately?

A declining workforce also contributes to America’s water crisis

The fallout from the Flint, Mich., water crisis continues to unfold as a total of nine public officials at the state and local level have been criminally indicted, and more may follow. As I’ve said previously, Flint is a microcosm of what is happening across America as it relates to our nation’s failing drinking water and wastewater systems. What we are witnessing is widespread noncompliance with federal laws that are intended to protect public health and the environment.  

There are many reasons for our nation’s water crisis and our crumbling water infrastructure, but a common thread points to faltering local economies, failure of leadership at the local level, lack of accountability by regulators, and declining federal financial and technical support.

As someone who has been immersed in the water sector for many years, there also is another factor that has contributed to America’s water crisis, and that is a declining workforce. The best workforces I’ve encountered are those where management encourages transparency and takes a strong interest in the well-being of employees. This often involves ensuring proper training on compliance and safety, providing opportunities for more education, offering competitive salaries and providing the requisite tools for employees to do their job right.

According to a joint 2010 American Water Works Assn. (AWWA) and Water Research Founda­tion re­port titled the Water Sec­tor Workforce Sustainability Initiative, 

There is a workforce crisis in the utility industry caused by impending retirements and shifting demographics, increasing diversity and a declining number of science and technical students receiving degrees. [U]tilities will feel the impact of these retirements most severely in areas requiring technical skills and knowledge such as Engineering and Operations. It has become increasingly difficult to recruit for these areas. Estimates are that the water supply and sanitary services sector will experience a growing need for additional employees—a potential increase of up to 45% in the coming years—due to new regulations, growth in infrastructure, security challenges and customer demands.

It is with this backdrop that I wish to highlight the important work of Paul Bishop, CEO for the Assn. of Boards of Certification (ABC), and the AWWA—which is working with Bishop—to provide a much-needed boost to the professionalism of our nation’s water and wastewater operators.  

Just like we take for granted the water that flows from our taps and toilets, we often take for granted the workers responsible for treating, distributing and collecting that water. I’ve had the pleasure of working with thousands of water operators over my career and the vast majority of them are hardworking, dedicated and conscientious professionals. These are the folks that work tirelessly to provide clean and safe water, responding 24/7 to floods, hurricanes, fires, and main breaks, and ensuring proper treatment and distribution of the water. 

But increasingly, as the workforce continues to age and turn over and wages continue to stagnate or decline, the industry is failing to attract the kind of workforce needed to operate and maintain our beleaguered systems. This problem has become particularly acute to rural America and small systems, as these communities are failing to attract and retain qualified operators. It is axiomatic that the ability to attract and retain a qualified workforce is directly linked with the performance of a system and compliance with federal and state law.

For example, a 2011 U.S. Government Accounta­bility Office (GAO) report found widespread and serious errors with reporting of health-based and monitoring violations by public water systems. According to GAO, it was the small systems, in particular, that often lacked the technical and operational capacity to maintain their systems, a result that often stems from a lack of training and resources not faced by larger systems.

Improving working conditions, training and the wages of our operators is imperative to creating a sustainable water workforce. Building and improving the workforce also requires providing operators with greater mobility to accept job offers where the opportunities and needs exist. To do so, states, which are responsible for licensing operators, must be willing to provide reciprocity for licensing requirements, including standardizing such requirements to the maximum extent practicable. Toward this end, Bishop also is working on developing a national/international standardized exam and training curricula which, if adopted by more states, would facilitate more reciprocity.  

National Rural Water Assn. also is helping to meet these growing needs through its training and technical assistance program (e.g., Circuit Rider), its Water University and utility management certification, and its WaterPro career center. But the needs are great and the resources limited.  

I would encourage each of you to visit www.professionaloperator.org, ABC’s website. The value of Bishop’s efforts to professionalize the water workforce should not be underestimated. Congress should and can help by federally recognizing and funding these efforts, as the solution is not just about infrastructure, it’s also about people. 

About the author

Brent Fewell is a former deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water and founder of the Earth & Water Group, where he advises clients on compliance with environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. Fewell can be reached at [email protected].

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