Water and wastewater treatment plant operators may not always love regulators, but they should love what the U.S. EPA water chief had to say about them. Speaking at the “BusinessH20 Water Innovation Summit” in September, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, Dave Ross, referred to those who clean our country’s drinking water and wastewater as “silent, everyday unsung heroes.” While not as celebrated as others who dedicate themselves to public service, such as police officers, firefighters, and teachers, they are every bit as essential — if not more so.
“Without this sector, we don’t have society as we know it,” Ross said.
He should know. Before he joined the EPA, Ross worked for four years at a wastewater treatment plant, according to Deseret News of Utah, which reported on the summit. Though not very long compared to many of today’s operators, it was the equivalent in time to a college degree program — and he was well-schooled on the value of water treatment and those who provide it. “These are great people who care passionately about their jobs,” he attested.
With his praise came concern, however. As the aging workforce retires, Ross warned that there will be a 30 to 40 percent decrease in skilled labor. And this workforce issue, like the workers themselves, is not getting the attention it deserves. While there are (thankfully) several financial programs designed to bolster capital improvement plans for the renewal of outdated and overburdened water and wastewater systems, Ross said we need to do more to bolster “human capital.”
“We can drop billions of dollars into brick and mortar, but if we don’t have a trained workforce, it won’t matter,” he stated. That refers not only to the institutional knowledge going out the door with retirees, but also to the fact that technology developments make it hard for training programs to keep pace.
One solution offered by Ross was for the water industry to partner with the Department of Defense to replace retiring water workers with retiring military personnel, bringing heroes from the front lines of the battlefield to the front lines of water treatment — still protecting U.S. citizens.
On the industry-organization front, it was encouraging to see that “ReGeneration Workforce” was the conference theme of this year’s WEFTEC, North America’s largest annual water quality event, providing a platform for technology providers and every generation of the water workforce to coalesce around solutions for the future.
So what role does technology play?
Although the EPA assistant administrator cited the integration of new technologies as a concern for utility operators, it’s important to recognize that, if appropriately leveraged, these technologies can also help us through the labor issue. The adoption of data-enabled, digitalized, and automated systems is arming utilities with more and better information to improve almost every aspect of utility management. These technologies and capabilities are often celebrated in the industry, and certainly in the pages of Water Innovations; however, harkening back to Ross’ testimony, they do not supersede the role of men and women in the water industry — operators, engineers, lab techs, laborers, policymakers, and, yes, even regulators.
In hearing the EPA’s call for more initiative to address the loss of skilled labor, I was reminded of the challenge thrust upon many utilities to “do more with less.” Streamlining processes and improving efficiency are critical, but let’s not diminish the human component in the process. When it comes to water workers — our everyday unsung heroes — I’d rather do more with more.