Guest Column | January 24, 2018

Demography is Destiny: The Looming Wave Of Retirements In The Water And Wastewater Industry

By Peter Brooks

It’s a foregone conclusion that operators are on their way out at utilities across the country, yet the workload remains and could even intensify. When it comes to preserving talent, institutional knowledge, and the future of the industry, the solution may be closer than you think.

The forces of inevitability have finally settled on the U.S. water and wastewater industry; in the very near future, the sector will say goodbye to our most valuable resource: our senior water and wastewater operators. Regulators predict that nearly half of the top-level water and wastewater operators — the professionals who keep our water clean and our environmental systems healthy — will begin their well-earned retirement over the next 12 to 18 months. The rest of us are left wondering, how do we keep our water and wastewater systems online and operating safely?

Water and wastewater operators are the unsung third pillar of public safety, behind firefighters and police officers. These are the men and women who make sure our water supplies meet drinking water standards and our rivers, streams, groundwater basins, and coastal waterways remain healthy, vibrant habitats for plant and animal species. These operators are the final line of defense between a major public health or environmental disaster, and we in the water industry haven’t quite figured out how to make up for their absence.

A confluence of forces has dealt us this hand. The Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts (whose regulations prompted a hiring spree) have reached their 40-year anniversary, and the operators who began their careers with the new regulations are ready to retire. Add to that the fact that the 2008 economic crisis led many senior operators to delay their retirement; these operators have now reached a level of economic security that allows them to retire comfortably at the same time that the next generation of operators has reached retirement age, leading to a tidal wave of retirements all at once.

waterTALENT stands ready as one part of the overall solution to the workforce challenges facing the water and wastewater industry.

A Matter Of Timing
Just as the major water and wastewater regulations turned 40 years old, so too has the capital infrastructure they spawned America is facing $1 trillion in deferred water and wastewater infrastructure investments, which in and of itself would be a challenge, but is all the more challenging given the greater source water quality challenges we face as we discover more and more contaminants of emerging concern in our drinking water. These forces — demographic, financial, regulatory, and technical — create a perfect storm of challenges for the leaders of water and wastewater facilities.

Fortunately, water and wastewater utilities are facing these challenges head-on. Utility leaders have been working to address this demographic crisis for years through a number of successful strategies, including: apprenticeship programs, workforce development organizations, succession planning, internships, and job fairs, among other initiatives. These efforts should give us all comfort for the long-term health of the industry.

But even this new generation of water and wastewater leaders will still leave the sector 20 years behind filling the senior positions that require a career’s worth of experience to successfully execute. How do we replace the experience of our senior operators in the near term as they leave the workforce?

The vast majority of senior, professional, experienced operators we have worked with are eager to continue to serve the community and are concerned that they’re leaving the helm of a ship not set for fairer seas.

A Path Forward
At waterTALENT, we believe one part of the overall solution is creating an on-call, nationwide team of licensed, experienced operators who can fill any temporary role left by an unexpected vacancy in a water or wastewater utility. As the pool of experienced operators shrinks, the industry needs a solution that can help utilities and districts flex through staff transitions, while maintaining uninterrupted compliance and avoiding any costly downtime. waterTALENT’s pool of over 500 top-tier, licensed, and vetted water and wastewater operators spread across 36 states are ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. These operators come equipped with a wide array of the skills and experience from decades of hands-on work inside plants and on field crews, from shift supervisor to chief plant operator to public works director.

As an industry, the water sector needs to embrace the fact that, while our best operators may have retired, their careers are far from over. The next mission for these experienced operators is to devote their time and energies to training the next generation of operators and ensuring that the systems they helped build are able to continue protecting the communities where they live. This service can come in a number of different forms: mentorship programs, training, knowledge transfer, standard operating procedure updates, and transitional leadership to help utilities plan for the next generation of successful operations.

The vast majority of senior, professional, experienced operators we have worked with are eager to continue to serve the community and are concerned that they’re leaving the helm of a ship not set for fairer seas. Every one of our operators is concerned with the next generation of operators, their professional development, and their ability to operate and maintain the infrastructure that took decades to build. Perhaps most importantly, the senior operators in the water and wastewater community still believe in the mission to protect public health and the environment and know what it takes to do so.

With each passing day, cities, districts, agencies, and companies are feeling the demographic pressures as their senior operators look towards retirement. Nothing will prevent these departures from happening; demography is destiny, and trying to reverse the trend of retirements is a fruitless effort. What we can do is be proactive, be flexible, plan for the long term, and have support of the short-term transition we’re facing right now.

About The Author

Peter Brooks is the vice president of waterTALENT, a service that provides licensed water and wastewater operational expertise through a team of 500 operators across 36 states. Previously, he was the Director of Business Development for NLine Energy and worked in business development and corporate strategy for Xylem. Brooks also researched drinking water challenges in India as a Fulbright Scholar and was the executive director of the Harvard Water Security Initiative. Earlier in his career, he served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying twice to Al Anbar Province, Iraq, where he led hundreds of missions in support of counterinsurgency operations and attained the rank of Captain. Brooks has a B.A., MBA, and MPP from Harvard University. He is a member of the Public Advisory Committee of the Hi Desert Water District in Yucca Valley, CA, and a board member the Warrior-Scholar Project, a college preparation boot camp for military veterans. Brooks and his wife and daughter live in Los Angeles.