The trend of losing top-tier water-treatment employees to retirement has been receiving enough press recently that water treatment plant (WTP) and wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) managers are starting to plan ahead. Having to groom and certify mid-level employees to fill top-tier spots is difficult enough. Finding qualified and interested prospects to fill in entry-level positions is getting even harder.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be, on average, 9,200 job openings annually for water operators over the next 10 years. That represents a job turnover rate of approximately 8.5 percent per year. Unlike some other industries that have time to train capable prospects without disrupting operations, water and wastewater treatment plants have virtually no downtime for training and no margin for error resulting from rookie mistakes.
Identifying Proactive Measures To Meet Changing Demand
A Government Accounting Office publication on the Water and Wastewater Workforce, released in January 2018, outlines both statistics for the industry as well as recruiting approaches the industry can take to fill key positions.
According to that publication, “Representatives from selected utilities that we interviewed reported using a mix of various approaches to meet their workforce needs. However, the selected large utilities reported ongoing hiring challenges with skilled technical workers such as machinists, electricians, and pipefitters.”
The strategies that were used varied, to a degree, by utility size. Smaller utilities depended upon word-of-mouth referrals, local media, general employment websites, recruitment of military veterans, and advertisements through industry-specific sources like professional water organizations. Larger plants added outreach through their own company websites and partnering with local technical colleges or community colleges offering water-treatment-related education. One utility even recruited out of state in an effort to find qualified candidates, because of a limited local pool of licensed or technically qualified candidates. All but one of six individually surveyed large utilities reported the process as being “somewhat difficult.” In addition to the “skills gap” cited in the report, another factor that made hiring technically qualified workers more difficult was having a robust local construction market attracting the more skilled workers.
Time To Get Creative
Without the option to reduce the flow of water or wastewater to or from their plants, what are WTP and WWTP plant managers to do? One approach is to be proactive instead of waiting for an opening, and to start cultivating relationships with potential sources of technically inclined workers who would at least shorten the learning curve after hire. Other opportunities include keeping an eye on local manufacturing plant closings or downsizing efforts, as well as cultivating relationships with community college or technical colleges for internship programs.
Replacing retiring talent at upper management and top-tier technical positions is only one half of the current labor squeeze facing water and wastewater treatment utilities — even if no one within the organization is currently approaching retirement age. That is because the other half of the equation is losing current key employees in the face of escalating “competition” from other utilities who need to replace their own retiring personnel.
There are several ways that utility management can protect their interests in such a case. One is by knowing what the going rate is for experienced personnel in varying disciplines — before a valued employee is recruited away. That information can be gained from the recently completed 2017 AWWA Compensation Surveys and used for planning strategies and budgeting to keep current employees in-house. Employee retention strategies reflected in the compensation surveys include healthcare plan changes, training, and educational opportunities as well as calculated pay increases as methods for minimizing turnover.
The surveys are available in three versions — one for large water plant operations (> 100,000 population), one for medium-size plants (10,000 to 100,000 population), and one for smaller plants (<10,000 population). Each version enables utility management to compare salaries by multiple demographic criteria: utility ownership/management type, number of employees, salary range, median salary, and more across common job titles and descriptions. Each also addresses staffing levels, cost-control measures, and utility policies, to provide added perspective for informed decision-making in drinking water operations and in water/wastewater operations. The surveys also address annual salary increases among various job categories and salary gaps between plants of different sizes.
Image credit: "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," Electric conductivity test of water samples, 2016, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/