News Feature | July 14, 2015

Water ‘Boot Camp' Guides Next-Gen Utility Workers

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A water utility in Connecticut is trying a long-term strategy for coping with the effects of brain drain. It is trying to attract employment candidates while they’re still young.

South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (SCCRWA) is participating in a fourth Water Boot Camp, “a week-long program designed to introduce high school students to environmental-related careers at public water utilities,” the New Haven Independent reported.

The effort is aimed at combating brain drain, the looming loss of talent and institutional knowledge in the water industry as the Baby Boomers retire in droves over the next few years.

Many people find their way to the water industry inadvertently, but SCCRWA wants to change that. Utility President and CEO Larry Bingaman “said the boot camp is designed to steer people into the industry in a more intentional manner,” according to the report.

Utility executives have brain drain on their mind.

“Bingaman’s workforce is aging out—plenty of jobs will be available at his shop in years to come. He has hopes that exposing young people to career opportunities with the water authority now will make them prime candidates for hiring in the future,” the report said. “Bingaman said public utilities hire people with all kinds of backgrounds such as the obvious environmental sciences, but also the not so obvious, like business or engineering.”

Bingaman wants students to understand what the water has to offer.

“I’ve found it to be a rewarding and exciting career,” he to the Independent. “There are going to be opportunities, and we want them to know how to get ready when they go to college.”

What does the boot camp program look like?

“In addition to getting a chance to wade in the Mill River, collect water samples and specimens such as stone flies and water pennies, the students also get to hang out with people like John Triana and Lisa DiFrancisco, who both work for the authority and actually have backgrounds in the environment,” the report said.

“Through the course of the week the students are exposed to other positions in the authority including environmental analyst, watershed protection specialist, and water quality analyst. Bingaman said the students also work on individual projects that they present at the last day of camp as part of a graduation ceremony,” it continued.

For at least one student, the boot camp helped highlight the value of water.

“I used to think water was just water,” Jalyn Johnson said, per the report. “I didn’t really care about the things that lived in it.”

Brain drain is also on the government’s radar. The EPA says it is working with states and industry to ensure that "there is a pool of qualified water professionals to meet current and future needs."

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 San Jose Mercury News reported.

For similar stories, visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.