From The Editor | February 8, 2016

Simulating A Cure For Brain Drain

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

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Much has been made of the gap in knowledge to come when the water industry’s aging workforce reaches retirement. With advances in simulation training software capable of getting new employees familiar with plant processes, it may be an analog fear in the digital world.

As members of the baby boomer generation retire, industries across the country are facing the challenge of substituting them with a motivated and skilled force of younger replacements. In the water sector, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) have been the vanguard for this looming need. The two jointly sponsored a public report released in 2010, the Water Sector Workforce Sustainability Initiative, which took a deep dive into labor statistics as they existed then and remains the most comprehensive forecast of the issue.

Per the report, the average age of a water utility worker five years ago was 44.7 and the average wastewater worker was 45.4. Workers in both sectors typically retire at 56. By 2020, the researchers predicted, between 30 and 50 percent of the water workforce could be retired.

There’s a lot of speculation about how best to fill the labor gaps and prepare young talent for taking on water jobs. A major concern in such a specialized field is that as tenured workers leave, knowledge of operations leaves with them, a phenomenon known as “brain drain.” But there may be hope for bringing the newbies up to speed by making use of one rapidly advancing digital field.

In a field as sensitive and precise as wastewater treatment, simulators provide the room for error necessary for novices to refine their skills.

A Solution In Demand
EnviroSim Associates, based in Ontario, Canada, provides simulation software for wastewater process engineers. Its software suite includes BioWin, a wastewater process simulator that mimics the procedures of an entire plant; PetWin, a simulator customized for petroleum wastewater treatment that includes an industrial activated sludge digestion model, four biomass components acting on sulfide and sulfate, and four adaptable components modeled on processes using ethylbenzene, phenol, benzene, and toulene; and BW Controller, which packages the other two models with the chance to experience a range of advanced process control scenarios such as the need to set dissolved oxygen based on reactor ammonia concentration or to use pH measurements to adjust air flow.

Christopher Bye, senior process engineer with EnviroSim, has seen interest in the company’s wares trend up as plant processes become harder to grasp.

“Demand has increased steadily over the years, driven by wastewater treatment plants becoming more and more complex,” he said. “With this increased treatment complexity come more interactions between different components of a treatment plant. BioWin enables designers to be aware of these interactions and look at options and strategies for dealing with them. Over the years, we have seen BioWin move from a tool used by early adopters to something that now is considered to be a necessary component in every process engineer’s toolkit.”

There’s also Hydromantis, another simulation software provider headquartered down the street from EnviroSim (which, I’m assured, is purely a geographical coincidence). Its tools address both the drinking and wastewater side of the industry. There are WatPro, which predicts water quality to simulate plant operation; ODM, for online disinfection management; GPS-X, a wastewater treatment plant simulator that can aid design and optimization efforts; CapdetWorks, which can project capital and operating costs; Toxchem, for odor emission reporting and modeling; and SimuWorks, the “flight simulator for water and wastewater treatment plants.”

“[Our software] allows students and young professionals to see the complex cause-and-effect relationships in wastewater treatment, and that type of learning is highly appealing.”

Christopher Bye, senior process engineer, EnviroSim

“Our SimuWorks platform was designed specifically to provide operators with a realistic training platform,” Robert Beres, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Hydromantis, said. “It can be deployed as a complete life-sized replica of a specific control room, set up for regional training with a library of various plant models used in more traditional, multistation classroom environments or loaded on individual workstations.”

In a field as sensitive and precise as wastewater treatment, simulators provide the room for error necessary for novices to refine their skills.

“BioWin allows new staff to play with the plant process in a safe environment,” Bye said. “For example, changing a dissolved oxygen setpoint or a wasting rate and then observing how the process responds is a fantastic way to reinforce important concepts that play a role in the knowledge base of a wastewater professional.”

Enlisting The Future
When it comes to the retiring workforce, WRF and AWWA may be more concerned with enticing new labor than training it. The two, along with the U.S. EPA, launched a recruiting website, WorkForWater.org, to encourage young people to pursue careers in the water sector. The Water Sector Workforce Sustainability Initiative report includes recommendations for connecting with schools and workforce investment boards.

Screenshot from the BioWin wastewater process simulator

Simulation software can serve as a recruiting tool, too, offering new workers a realistic and engaging experience with the tasks that are offered by the field.

“[Our software] allows students and young professionals to see the complex cause-and-effect relationships in wastewater treatment, and that type of learning is highly appealing,” said Bye.

Beres added that working with simulators may clear up some misconceptions about the industry held by inexperienced workers.

“Simulation tools are dispensing with the prevailing notion that careers in water or wastewater treatment do not offer opportunities for engaging digital tools,” he said. “Platforms such as SCADA and process models are making it obvious that while the challenges have been with us for a long time, there is an exciting evolution in the sophistication of the tools that we are using to address the challenges. This exposes the younger generation of professionals to the use of these tools early in their training and careers. They are realizing that the challenges in water and wastewater treatment are as complex, as exciting, and as worthy of their focus as those in other fields of engineering.”

An Image Of What’s To Come
Simulation software mimics plant processes as the operator would see them on the job, as gridded displays resembling flowcharts. But imagining the future of computer simulation can take the mind in a thousand digitally painted directions. As the ability to display controls in more detailed and intuitive ways expands, simulators will have to keep up to continue delivering a realistic training experience.

Both EnviroSim and Hydromantis are working on programs that will keep simulation software in line with how most of us are beginning to engage with technology: on the go.

“We see simulation training becoming more and more mobile,” Bye said. “Simulators could move to the cloud as many other software solutions have done. This could allow wastewater professionals to access the knowledge repository encapsulated in simulators as they walk around the plant, not just when they are sitting behind a computer in an office.”

Exploring the outer limits of mainstream technology, equipment provider Ovivo developed a virtual reality app that can take customers directly into the product.

“This is one of the requests we had from some of the customers: to be able to understand the mechanics and the issues to fix the equipment, or to modify, or to improve it, how to operate it better,” Elena Bailey, Ovivo’s business development director for North America, told Water Online during WEFTEC 2015. “To train their new people who are coming into utilities, this is one of the ways we thought to demonstrate the equipment in operation.”

At this point, the app is little more than an exciting way to explore 3D models of Ovivo equipment, without much to offer in terms of lessons for operating it. But it does set the table for possibilities at the intersection of digital advancement and simulation training.

Some may argue that certain aspects of plant operation can’t be passed down through simulation and that offline pieces of knowledge will inevitably be lost as the current generation of workers retires. Simulation software is capable of becoming as wide and varied as any plant process, training new workers on the tasks that take place on a computer and, maybe one day, beyond. With so much on the digital horizon still unknown and still possible, fear of brain drain might just be a lack of imagination.