Professional Organizations Working with Utilities to Offer Work Force Development Options
By Julie Nahrgang, Water Environment Association of Texas (WEAT) Executive Director
and Kristin O’Neill, WEAT Secretary and Senior Project Manager at Stantec
While the coronavirus pandemic has left approximately 1 in 5 Americans without jobs, utility operations carry on uninterrupted to support our communities and health care providers. However, water workers are in short supply, especially at public utilities. A wave of retirements, often referred to as the Grey Tsunami, is anticipated over the next several decades, leading to a large void in skilled workers for utilities. With so many Americans available for work, what can we do as water industry ambassadors to entice workers from other industries and those entering the workforce to consider a career in utility operations?
First, we must understand the workforce problems within the water industry. According to a 2016 report published by the Brookings Institute, the median age of a water worker (46.4 years) is more than four years higher than workers in all other occupations (42.2 years). The US Governmental Accountability Office estimates that 31 to 37% of utility workers are expected to retire over the next decade. In addition to an aging workforce approaching retirement, the existing water workforce lacks diversity. According to the same Brooking Institute Report, women represent only 14.9% of the water workforce, and two-thirds of the workforce is white. Repairing aging infrastructure and planning for population growth, densification, and resiliency while continuing regular operations continues to cause a growth in the water industry’s workload. Consequently, attracting, training, and retaining a skilled workforce is one of the most pressing issues facing our sector today.
We also need to understand the advantages of a water industry career so that we can all be ambassadors and promote work force development. In general, the water industry pays more, especially at lower ends of the pay scale, than other occupations (Brookings), while relying heavily on on-the-job applied training in lieu of extensive education requirements. Because of the nature of community support, the 1.7 million water jobs in the United States exist in every corner of the country.
One example of a utility leading the way in workforce development is the City of Houston, TX. Shannon Dunne, Senior Assistant Director of Houston Water’s Wastewater Operations Branch, along with other Houston Water leaders, began coordinating with the local Water Environment Association of Texas (WEAT) section to invest in memberships for Houston Water employees in early 2018. The main drivers for this investment were to promote workforce growth from within by investing in training and other professional development opportunities for existing employees while offering networking opportunities to attract talent into their work force.
The City of Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, serving 2.2 million drinking water and wastewater customers over 600-square-miles and employing about 1,500 water professionals across Houston Water. However, in the wastewater operations branch alone, they were anticipating more than 45 retirements in 2018. Houston Water saw the Grey Tsunami headed their way, while they were facing some unique long-term challenges: recovering from and making their systems more resilient after Hurricane Harvey, negotiating and planning for a consent decree agreement with the US EPA, and keeping up with the population growth and densification in one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States.
The state of Texas employs the most water and wastewater operators in the United States and, unlike the national water statistics, has relatively low hourly and annual wages for wastewater operators compared to other states. Knowing this about Texas, WEAT has partnered with several utilities to promote water operations workforce development programs across the state of Texas, with the City of Houston as a case study.
The first step WEAT took to help the City of Houston’s workforce development goals was to hold a tiered membership drive with Houston Water staff. The goal of the tiered membership is to provide the most cost-effective option for the City of Houston to give their staff access to the non-profit operations and workforce development programs offered by WEAT. The membership rate for the City of Houston was tiered based on the number of members who signed up. The more members signed up, the more discounted the rate becomes. At each of the eight drives, a presentation was given to all in attendance about WEAT, its mission, and different programs and volunteer opportunities. WEAT leaders solicited feedback directly from new members about the type of programs WEAT should offer to provide value to their careers.
As WEAT members, City staff members were eligible for another workforce development program – the advanced operator trainings. All operations staff are required to obtain continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain their license. We received feedback from our membership and utility employers that they were in search of incrementally advanced, hands-on trainings that would facilitate a growth pattern as an operator progresses through their career. The trainings that WEAT currently offers are: Nutrient Removal with Chemical Nutrient Removal, Nutrient Removal with Advanced Biological Nutrient Removal, Wastewater Plant Simulator Workshop, Instrumentation and Controls (I&C) 101 (for non-I&C staff), Electrical 101 (for non-electrical staff), Advanced Aeration Basin and Clarifier Training, and Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG). The next steps for this program are to offer a different side of training to operators, such as soft skills and Microsoft office training classes.
In addition to providing trainings for existing staff, WEAT partnered with the City of Houston to attract new employees. WEAT’s Springboard Program aims to attract students as they are leaving high school and moving into technical or junior colleges to consider a water industry career. The program provides visibility to water operation career paths by aligning post-secondary training and curriculums to meet employment requirements. WEAT’s workforce development committee is working directly with junior and community colleges, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and utility partners to establish and adopt curriculums for water and wastewater operations. The program portrays operations positions as the start to a career, not just a job.
At the annual WEAT-TAWWA Conference – Texas Water – a conference walk-through is held with a local high school. In 2019, when the conference was held in Houston, 12 students from the Energy Institute in Houston, a STEM magnet school, plus a chaperone, and one senior Houston Independent School District career technical education specialist, joined the tour. One tangible outcome of the 2019 walk-through is that the workforce development committee has been invited to provide a presentation on water workforce opportunities as part of a teacher in-service day designated to provide information to teachers on potential career and employment opportunities.
The Springboard Program connected WEAT’s workforce development committee with Workforce Solutions and the Department of Labor to pilot an apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program was registered with the Department of Labor in January 2020. Through the program, WEAT is working with utility partners to connect apprentices with utility jobs, where they will receive on-the job training as D-level operators. The utility partners receive financial support for hosting apprentices and have a direct connection to applicants through the Workforce Solutions and Department of Labor applicant pools. The financial support is an important component to elevating the pay scale for operators in Texas to meet industry-wide rates. The program’s first apprentice in the Program is going to start work in fall 2020.
These programs on which the City of Houston, other utility partners, and WEAT have been collaborating on constitute the ‘infrastructure’ that facilitates water careers. However, it takes Word of Mouth Believers and Transmitters, or WOMBATS, to go out and perpetuate the message about water careers and amplify the reach of these programs. With so many Americans looking for impactful work after the coronavirus pandemic, there is no better time than right now to become a wombat and do your part to help fight the Grey Tsunami.