By Eric LaCoppola
The water sector is filled with incredible talent, from men and women who have kept their utilities running day and night, to the many suppliers who provide the key products and services to support distributing clean water, and reclaiming wastewater to clean water. It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a large portion of the current workforce talent moving to retirement in the next 5 to 10 years. In fact, according to the Brookings Institution, roughly 1/3 of drinking water and wastewater operators in the U.S. will be eligible for retirement by 2028 — that’s just 5 years from now!
In a perfect world, an organization knows of a planned retirement a few years in advance and is able to work with their Human Resources department to build a bench for proper succession planning to take place. When the retirement is announced, the plan is deployed, and the organization doesn’t miss a beat. As we all know, the world is not so perfect, and timing doesn’t always work out, not to mention how many times an unfortunate health emergency has happened for a key employee and the organization is caught off guard. The speed of employee transitions to other organizations is already picking up and will continue to do so for the near future. So, what can an organization do to best prepare for this?
A critical action item today is to reflect on the current makeup of the organization. Do differences exist in your workforce? Consider gender, race, beliefs, age, culture, and religion. If your workforce is too much of the “same”, it will be difficult to attract talent to your organization and a wake-up call is in order. Several articles have been written in this publication over the past year highlighting how critical Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is to an organization’s success. Hopefully this column is not the first time you’ve heard of DEI. To yield the most success, an organization has to have an employee base that makes the future employee feel at home. If the employee does not feel that “belonging” they will continue seeking employment elsewhere, and you will have costly turnover.
Diversity is how we recognize and respect each other and embracing diversity means being proactive in valuing differences and eliminating prejudices. Every team member is unique and brings their unique perspectives and skillsets to the workplace.
Equity gives each employee fair and equal access regardless of their diverse background. Equity means that each team member has the proper resources to do their job, with equal opportunity.
Inclusion ensures everyone on the team is treated fairly and respectfully, despite differences. Inclusion is about how employees interact — ensuring all have a seat at the table and their voices are heard.
Belonging is the outcome of successfully creating a fair and inclusive workplace environment. It is the feeling experienced by an employee when they are fully accepted and valued in the workplace.
Hiring can be one of the most stressful and frustrating tasks for an organization. How often do we feel there are no suitable candidates for a role? Yet how often do we take a look at our current workforce and realize that the makeup could be one of the reasons candidates don’t accept offers, or if they do, they don’t last?
Reduced turnover is one of the many benefits from an effective DEI strategy. Other benefits are diverse and fresh points of view. People of different backgrounds will have a broader set of viewpoints when faced with solving problems, and typically come to more creative solutions to help the business solve problems and run better. A workforce that is representative of the customer base it serves will more greatly align with the customer and do a better job of creating customer satisfaction.
Recently, our company celebrated International Women’s Day for the second year in a row. Celebrating events like this show we care to take a small pause, give thanks, and it makes a big difference in employee belonging. The number of women working in our company in literally all levels of responsibility over the past decade as greatly increased and should continue to do so. It is now easier to attract women professionals, as candidates can see an existing workforce that they can resonate with. Having two daughters myself, I want them to have the same opportunities that I have, and thankfully as they enter the workforce in the near future, the workforce is more equitable than when I started 30 years ago.
We all have a role in making decisions that make our organizations best prepared to handle today’s challenges and succeed in the future. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging is not just nice to have, it is essential for organizational success, especially as the workplace in all industries continue to evolve. The water sector, however, will need to evolve quicker and more dramatically than many sectors if in fact 1/3 of employees do retire in the next 5 years!
Eric LaCoppola is the President of Environment One, which is headquartered in Niskayuna, NY. LaCoppola serves on the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Board of Directors. WWEMA is a non-profit trade association that has been working for water and wastewater technology and service providers since 1908. WWEMA’s members supply the most sophisticated leading-edge technologies and services, offering solutions to every water-related environmental problem and need facing today’s society. For more information about WWEMA, visit www.wwema.org.