News Feature | July 3, 2014

How To Stop The Water Sector 'Brain Drain'

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

It's no secret that "brain drain" is a major challenge for the water industry. 

"There is a looming crisis facing the water and wastewater industry. Over 79 million 'Baby Boomers' will be reaching retirement age in the next ten to fifteen years," according to a research paper published by the Water Environment Federation (WEF).  

"This social phenomenon will cause vacancies in our staffing," the report said, and could lead to a loss in institutional knowledge at water utilities. 

Can training help plug the brain drain? Experts say yes, and many educators are framing the crisis in a positive light, calling it an opportunity for the next generation of workers. 

For instance, the California Department of Education is doling out cash to encourage students to consider the water industry. 

"West Valley College will receive a $6 million grant to train K-12 and college students in the vital fields of water supply and wastewater management," the San Jose Mercury News recently reported

Utilities are already having trouble making key hires. 

"There will be a high demand for electricians, technicians, engineers, mechanics, water treatment and distribution operators, and wastewater treatment operators in the next five years with the anticipated retirement of 60 percent of the current workers in this industry," the report said, citing the college. 

"The Bay Area Consortium for Water and Wastewater Education, a group of local water agencies, is one program that's finding it difficult to hire qualified operators and technicians," it said.  

San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley Water District are in particular need of water workers. 

"The district, which supplies water to several public and private water companies in the county, needs a well-trained workforce with the impending continuing population growth coupled with a prolonged drought," the report said. 

District CEO Beau Goldie said even more technically advanced water jobs will be opening soon. 

"This grant allows the consortium to develop local talent and provide the skills necessary to build careers in water supply and wastewater management while filling the looming job gap," Goldie said in the report. 

Other colleges are focusing on the water sector as well, framing it as an opportunity for students. For instance, a program at American Water College, seeks to partner with utilities to implement training programs. 

The EPA is concerned about the "brain drain," as well. 

"Water sector professionals are vital to protecting public health through the operation and maintenance of water and wastewater treatment plants. They ensure that clean and safe water is consistently provided to the public. For this reason, EPA is concerned about predicted workforce losses to the industry through retirements," the agency said. 

The EPA said it is working with states and industry to ensure that "there is a pool of qualified water professionals to meet current and future needs."

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