Aging Workforce - It can’t include ME!

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I recently turned 55 and to celebrate I fell off a ladder.

Well, actually, I climbed a ladder to trim a large tree limb. When the limb fell it knocked over the ladder and I went flying. Fortunately I landed in a flower bed and nothing was injured but my pride. That injury was compounded, however, when my shocked wife said, “You’re too OLD for this nonsense!”

To prove her wrong, I was back up the ladder within a few minutes and worked the rest of the afternoon without problems. Her words came back to haunt me when I got out of bed the next morning. A full-body transplant would have felt good at that point.

Like a lot of people in the municipal water industry, I’m not as young as I used to be. I don’t think I’m old, but I ain’t no spring chicken by any means.

According to published reports, some 64 million Baby Boomers (over 40 percent of the U.S. labor force) will begin to retire in large numbers by the end of this decade. Until recently I had not spent much time thinking about retirement. Even at 55 it seems a long way off. It also seems a little unreal - it’s hard for me to imagine a time when I won’t have to work to pay bills.

You don’t get rich working as an editor, but I feel I’m at least average or better at saving for a rainy day. According to a March 2004 report from the Congressional Budget Office, my fellow Baby Boomers have done well for themselves and, on average, should be able to retire at a reasonable age - assuming the economy remains in good health.

However, more than half will depend to some degree on the Social Security system to maintain their lifestyle. An unfortunate percentage also will need to continue working at least part time to supplement their income and maintain health insurance coverage. I don’t even want to think about what happens if the economy stumbles and the Social Security system fails.

The graying of the US workforce is particularly troubling for the water industry because it lacks the attraction of some other industries. Young people are not drawn by the “glamour” of the water industry and there is significant concern about a shortage of engineers, managers and operators - both at utilities and at the manufacturing companies that serve the industry.

The graying workforce issue also has a link to the problem of aging infrastructure that faces the industry over the next 10-20 years. The American water industry experienced a major boom in construction and growth in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The young engineers and operators who came into the industry during that period and helped build and commission new facilities are now approaching retirement - at a time when the systems they created need to be repaired or replaced.

Much has been written about the need for industry to plan for the coming “brain drain” as industry veterans begin to retire. As I’ve read those articles my focus was on the industry as a whole - I wasn’t thinking in terms of my own replacement. I am now, and it’s an oddly unsettling concept.

James Laughlin, Editor

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