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Fall 2020

Strategies For Recruiting Qualified People To Enter The Water Workforce

The role of the professional Operator

Professional operators have a broad knowledge of science, math, management, and an uncanny ability to fix broken equipment while on a limited budget. Operators can fix, repair, and improve just about anything. Most in the profession have the knowledge to address most any problem and create solutions.

It is our fervent hope that as our society moves forward, we better appreciate the criticality of the public sanitation as essential to the welfare of humankind and not something that occurred decades in the past, to be crossed off as an accomplishment. In fact, Reader’s Digest’s list of “Jobs Americans Can’t Live Without” had water and wastewater operators as the second most critical profession to our nation.

Through creativity and ingenuity, operators turn problems into opportunities to advance the profession. Those that have received the Water Environment Federation (WEF) Operator Ingenuity Award are a great example of this; they have implemented creative and cost-effective solutions to problems.

Like all occupations, it is necessary to replace those employees who retire and leave the profession. Many wastewater operators hired in the 1980s that work for municipalities can retire with full benefits by age 60 (health insurance coverage is acknowledged as a key role in delaying retirement). Six years ago, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) projected that by 2024, nearly one-third of all current water and wastewater utility workers will have retired. Based on these statistics, there is a critical need to replenish the ranks of those that reclaim our waters to make them fishable, swimmable, and drinkable natural resources, keeping our communities healthy, sustainable, and livable.


WEF’s passion to promote the message

One of the initiatives WEF has been promoting for more than a decade is communicating to the general public the importance of the wastewater operator and the viability, reward, and stability of such a career path. Many members have spoken on the importance of the front-line operator and that it is frustrating that becoming a water or wastewater operator is not seen as a career of choice. Ironically, it is now one of the only jobs in our field that is relatively secure. The world-wide pandemic has created another excellent opportunity to emphasize once again how important operators are to our health and world economy.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, our global thinking about the environment has been forever altered. Our views of cleanliness and sanitation have become more exacting. WEF believes this presents an opportunity to engage a society more in tuned to the environment on the criticality of wastewater operators to the health of the public and the environmental health.


Work group Task

WEF is comprised of Member Associations (MA) throughout North America. Each MA has WEF Delegates that make up the House of Delegates (HOD). The HOD Working Groups are established to carry out tasks related to the members and industry.

Given the importance of the role of the professional operator to modern society, it is a curiosity as to why it is not the career of choice for many more qualified individuals. This article was written to help encourage qualified individuals to enter the water workforce and to present strategies for successfully recruiting more such individuals to this industry. Data for this article was gathered by researching the best practices in professional water environment magazines and publications of the past few years and conducting individual interviews with water environment professionals.


Data Gathering approach

To write this article, the Project Team Working Group felt it necessary to develop a questionnaire for seasoned operators or utility management staff to fully capture their individual experiences as wastewater professionals. There are many ideas on how professional operators enter the field and what training they receive, but there is no quantifiable data. To answer this, we felt it was important to conduct primary data gathering to present an accurate story on what had worked to recruit members in the past so these lessons may be shared among those in our industry. Contributing HOD members were given the task of contacting their assigned MAs and helping to identify candidates willing to participate in the interview/questionnaire process. The HOD Project Team 2 Working Group was led by John Presta and consisted of 11 HOD members, each assigned 1-5 MAs. These efforts resulted in 38 interviews from 17 different MAs. It should be noted that the number of interviews received may have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, Work Group members performed a literature search of water and wastewater publications over the past few years containing articles highlighting best practices and common themes in operator workforce development. These publications were obtained, reviewed, and summarized. The result was identification of trends and best practices in the successful development of the future water and wastewater workforce.
This article presents those findings.


Research Findings

The interview respondents have been in the water profession between 3 and 43 years, averaging more than 26 years of service in the profession, with an average of 9 years of experience in their current position. All participants were in management positions and had educational backgrounds ranging from high school to military service to advanced college degrees. Results indicated that 43 percent of respondents have an undergraduate degree and 27 percent have advanced degrees. A total of 83 percent of the respondents were actively involved in their MA, with many also active in other organizations. Most of the respondents started in the water profession at a young age and worked their way through various positions to achieve their current position. Interestingly, every one of the respondents indicated that they were satisfied in their current position and their ideal job/position was within the water profession, except for a few who noted retirement.

Eighty percent of the individuals entered the water profession because of interest in the public health field and the remainder chose the career path because the opportunity presented itself. It should be noted that nine of the respondents (30 percent) identified multiple reasons for entering the water profession.

The individuals surveyed were selected for their experience and professionalism. The longevity of the respondents’ careers in water is an interesting finding as data suggests that once an individual entered the field, it was likely that they would stay and grow in it, citing feelings of satisfaction in doing something positive for the environment. While the stories of those entering the field varied considerably, once they were in, they elected to stay in the field.


training and COMPETENCIES

Training programs offered from the various organizations ranged greatly, but ‘on-the-job’ training was consistent throughout. There were also many organizations that offered a defined career progression plan and others that offered tuition reimbursement or community college programs. Retaining good employees was a common challenge faced by many of the organizations and there were a variety of methods utilized to retain staff. Common methods implemented include offering staff competitive pay and benefits, job security, and job advancement. Managing and dealing with people was the biggest challenge faced by the respondents.

The literature search identified several approaches practiced by organizations successful in retaining employees, including establishing a mentoring program and creating well-developed succession plans. Recruiting the best talent has become competitive in this profession and retaining that talent is critical. The February 2014 Water and Waste Digest highlights a good example of an established program to retain operators. The City of St. Petersburg Water Resources Department has identified four key factors in retaining qualified employees:

1. A Health and Wellness Plan.

2. An Educational Program.

3. A Development and Training Program.

4. Financial Wealth Building.

Above all, increased operator participation in the mission of the organization is essential to retaining employees.

Our research found that mentoring is a very common and important program for improved employee retention and onboarding in the water environment field. Effective mentoring programs couple experienced staff with young professionals, and not just for the short term. An effective mentoring program will keep staff paired, from initiation integration through training, performance, and maintenance. The May 2019 Journal of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) detailed how in 2014, Burns and McDonnell Engineers developed a program to promote knowledge transfer from senior engineers to new professionals. Every two weeks, senior engineers would be invited to present on various topics ranging from sizing a pump to biological treatment to chemical feed system design. Junior staff found the information and the attention from senior staff added value to their careers and development. The questionnaires indicated that operators have multiple core competencies – including interpersonal skills, professionalism, integrity, initiative, adaptability, reliability, and teamwork – but also need the ability to plan and organize, budget, schedule, and coordinate, think critically, and problem solve. Operators are also public voices for the community and, therefore, must have good communication and customer service skills. They must also be aware of environmental laws and regulations and be safety conscious. The literature search found the need for these core competencies to be nationwide. In a major collaboration between the Employment and Training Administration of the US Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), WEF, AWWA, and the National Rural Water Association, a model was designed to depict the core competencies required for field staff and operators and to serve as a resource for workforce developers and educators. Among the major competencies identified were:

interpersonal skills, integrity, professionalism, initiative, adaptability and flexibility, dependability and reliability, lifelong learning, reading, writing, mathematics, science and technology, communication, critical and analytical thinking, computer skills, teamwork, customer focus, planning and organizing, and creative thinking.

A complete list can be found at “The Water and Wastewater Competency Model,” US Department of Labor, January 2018.


Career Benefits

There were several valuable recommendations that were provided by respondents that could be utilized to encourage candidates to enter the water profession. Examples included
the following:

1. Good work environment

2. Rewarding work

3. Job security

4. Competitive benefits

5. Opportunity for growth, and

6. Satisfying career

Those surveyed felt that reaching potential hires at an early age was paramount to making young people aware of the opportunities in the water profession and to helping ensure that we have the skilled workforce needed to maintain our priceless water resources. Ideas presented ranged from treatment plant tours to educational programs that target the water industry. Survey responses also provided insights into the skill sets that will be beneficial to future water professionals, along with ideas that WEF could implemented to assist the individual MAs.

Our literature search found likewise. The WRF believes we must rebrand the industry to appeal to younger audiences – the message being: “the industry is investing in a skilled workforce and offers multiple career paths to people interested in environmental stewardship.” We must also change our paradigm about the profession. Today’s millennial is not interested in a 30-year career with the same company. They are looking for meaningful assignments and are attracted to “green” or “smart utilities”. We must also change our educational approach to introduce the water industry at a younger age. The City of Atlanta now offers water education programs that begin during early childhood. Middle school students receive training in water-based science curriculum. In a survey conducted by young professionals for the 2008 AWWA annual conference and exhibition, more than 40 young professionals from the United States and Canada listed the reasons for entering the water field. More than half mentioned the school system as providing them with exposure to career fairs, professional presentations, and scholarships.

This finding is interesting, as most MAs support science fairs and have Public Education Committees geared toward Kindergarten through Grade 12. This suggests that these programs pay dividends in the future and should be continued and possibly expanded.



As mentioned above, mentoring, employee retention programs, rebranding the profession and early education were common themes discovered in the water environment literature of the past few years addressing operator workforce development. There are many other initiatives that are popular across the country in the water and wastewater profession. Below is a list of some of the more common, successful programs highlighted in recent publications.


Using a Regionalized Approach to Recruitment.

“Bayworks,” the San Francisco-area-based coalition of 34 water and wastewater agencies, has tackled recruitment, training, and other regional workforce development issues on a regionalized basis since its debut in 2009. According to the Water Environment & Technology January 2019 article, a recent job opening in the NAPA Sanitation district, part of the regionalized group, drew 50 applicants for the position.


Diversity and Inclusion

Facilities whose workforce diversity represents the diversity of the community they serve can provide a higher level of customer service to the residents. Recent studies indicate that millennials strongly value cognitive diversity, a variety of thought, ideas, and philosophy. Recent studies also indicate that more diverse and inclusive companies have higher financial returns.


Stackable Credentials

A water or wastewater operator is a “middle skills” job, requiring more than a high school diploma and less than a college degree. ‘Stackable’ credentials are a trend in career development that combine post-secondary education with workforce development to build work skills incrementally. They are part of a sequence of credentials accumulated over time to build an individual’s qualifications and help them move along a career path to a higher paying job. In 2016, 19 states had stackable credential policies in place.


measurable results

Operators have an expansive and versatile skill set and are the true heroes of the Public Health Movement of the 20th Century. Water is essential to life on this planet, for without water, life is not possible. From 1900 to 2000, the human lifespan increased from 47 years to 78 years. To be certain, the medical field gets most of the credit, but given how often we drink a glass of water compared to visiting the doctor, it is clear who has the greatest influence on our lives daily.


Operator’s of the 21st Century

We are now two decades into the 21st Century and the challenges of the wastewater operations field continue to grow, including emerging contaminants and nutrients. There is an increasing need to evaluate plant operations using more and better data to make decisions. Stated in another way, the 21st Century Operator will never go unchallenged in their job, as learning will be a lifelong vocation. This challenge adds to the value and satisfaction of the job. Continual advancement of skill sets, technical understanding, and nuances of process control and energy efficiency require continual lifelong learning. The importance of lifelong learning opportunities in operator training cannot be overstated.


Challenges Remain

Interviews with seasoned operators and utility management staff and the most recent water environment literature addressing operator workforce development corroborate some basic facts about the future of our water profession: there is a major exodus of talent, younger professionals are not being drawn to the field for the same reasons they previously were, and retaining talent will be a competitive undertaking. Addressing these facts will be the responsibility of the entire water sector. Hopefully, this article has shown that many initiatives exist to enable the water environment sector to overcome these challenges. Mentoring programs, regionalized approaches to recruitment, early education programs, and programs designed to retain talented operators have all been shown to be successful tools in this quest. With the right approach, this profession will one day become the career path of choice for many qualified individuals.



Contact Info

Hawai‘i Water Environment Association
PO Box 2422
Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96804
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