Of the many challenges faced by the wastewater treatment industry today, perhaps none are more acute than the threat of “brain drain” — the loss of institutional knowledge that comes from one generation of wastewater professionals retiring without enough of a workforce entering the field to replace it. While there are a number of potential solutions to this problem being explored, two neighboring Ohio communities believe it may all come down to wages and education.
“The workforce shortage is squeezing anyone looking to hire,” Lima Ohio reported. “During today’s already tight labor market, local governments — just like private companies — are having to find new ways to train and attract the right people to their organizations.”
With brain drain affecting its public entities, such as municipal wastewater treatment operations, the Village of Ottawa, OH, conducted a wage study to search for the root cause. It found that its labor shortage issues could be traced all the way back to the global economic downturn of a decade ago.
“When the Great Recession hit in 2009, many local governments saw overstretched budgets, which forced many public municipalities across the country to stop hiring altogether and pushing older employees to take early retirements,” according to Lima Ohio. “Consequently, Ottawa council also agreed to update its pay scales, allocating additional funds to salary line-items over the next few years.”
While higher salaries should help, it will always be difficult for public treatment operations to compete for highly-skilled workers against the private sector, which will be able to pay more. Bumping up pay for entry-level jobs seems to bring in more candidates for public work, according to the report, but it’s still a struggle for municipalities to offer enough capital to attract mid- to late-career positions, like those of plant operators and engineers.
To complement the entry-level boost wrought by higher wages, the city of Lima, OH, has turned to local educators to help groom the next generation of highly-skilled workers.
“To deal with finding certified plant operators and engineers, the city has talked with Allen County and Rhodes State College over the past year to find a way to form some sort of apprenticeship program to fill such positions in the future,” per Lima Ohio.
But, as anyone in the public wastewater treatment industry knows, there may be no single quick fix to the brain drain that comes with the departure of retirement-age plant employees.
“[Baby Boomers] are the largest cohort of births in recent history, and they are entering retirement age,” Lima’s interim human resources director, Sharetta Smith, told Lima Ohio. “We’ve been out there really looking and thinking about, ‘How do we get ready as Baby Boomers retire?’”
Ultimately, brain drain is not a problem that can be fixed by any single initiative. But with combined efforts like the ones being undertaken in Ohio, the public wastewater sector will always be in good hands.