Where Have the Workers Gone?

May 1, 2018
In recent decades, the number of people employed in water and wastewater treatment facilities has consistently decreased despite the fact that the water treatment industry is clearly experiencing growth and providing new job opportunities.

By Bill Decker

In recent decades, the number of people employed in water and wastewater treatment facilities has consistently decreased. Estimates vary, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the water treatment industry could have 25 percent to 50 percent of its workforce retire in the next ten years. This turnover will affect not just treatment plants but consulting engineering and manufacturing businesses as well.

The decrease in net employment is despite the fact that the water treatment industry is clearly experiencing growth and providing new job opportunities. Unfortunately, the number of applicants looking to enter the field is not keeping pace with the increase in job opportunities. Some reasons include: a lack of interest from new graduates in jobs in the water sector; lack of resources to hire and retain skilled staff, especially in the public sector; and an aging workforce. Another comment by the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that “the number of applicants for these positions is normally low, primarily because of the physically demanding and unappealing nature of some of the work…. Adding to these challenges is the difficulty in attracting skilled workers to live and work in rural areas and the stigma associated with the sanitation sector as a whole.”

Ouch! So, what can we do as an industry to attract entrants and what can we do if we cannot hire enough skilled people? First, we have to continue to change the perception of the industry. Despite the common misconception, modern plant operation is a high-skill occupation. Operators carefully monitor advanced mechanical, electrical, and process control systems to regulate the flow of treated and untreated water into and out of these plants using a variety of advanced technologies. They are also responsible for complying with strict water quality standards set forth by federal, state, and local agencies. Performing these duties requires knowledge and skills such as chemistry and hydraulic principles, as well as the ability to operate precision equipment and communicate technical information. These are high-skill, high-responsibility positions that can affect the well-being and financial livelihood of an entire community or region. The industry needs better recognition so that we can attract top talent among our new entrants.

Second, we need to recognize that advances have been made in instrumentation and analytics and we need to champion increased adoption. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a megatrend whose changes are slowly making their way into the industry. Few plants have an IoT strategy because few manufacturers and few engineers have embraced the possibilities. We need to change this by identifying how this technology can reduce operational costs, increase plant reliability, and decrease the manual record keeping mandated by regulators. Smart technology exists that allows many pieces of equipment to indicate pending failures by monitoring vibration, temperature, pressure, etc., and this technology can notify staff of future maintenance needs before the equipment fails. The same is true for online record keeping. Much of this work could be automated but many of our systems still require manual record keeping. We need to change this and encourage broader development and adoption of advanced technologies.

Finally, we need to look at how we document and train staff to operate and maintain our equipment. Today, a plant’s operations and maintenance manual will number in the thousands of pages. Scanning this into a set of PDF files does not make the encyclopedia of information any more usable or accessible to the operations staff, nor does it make it easier to operate or maintain the treatment plant. We need smarter documentation that is available using a system like Quick Response (QR) Code that will pull up all relevant data about a piece of equipment including operation instructions, settings, maintenance records, etc.

We need to change education and training for operations personnel and, hopefully, move toward a national standard. We need to expand those involved in training the next generation of workers to include trade organizations and academic institutions, as well as on-the-job training. Much of the technology exists to make these changes but adoption remains limited and where implemented, is still used for very limited purposes.

Difficulties in hiring and retaining staff are already being seen not only in municipalities but also in supporting roles at consulting engineering firms and equipment manufacturing companies. We need to change the perception of our industry and embrace technologies that enable operators to perform higher level plant functions. Either that or we’ll continue to look around and wonder, “Where have the workers gone?” WW

Bill Decker is vice president and general manager of the equipment and services group of Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc. (a Metawater Company) in Loves Park, Ill. He is a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association’s (WWEMA) Board of Directors and is Chair of its Marketing and Member Services Committee. He also serves on the Department of Commerce’s Environmental Technology Trade Advisory Committee. For more information about WWEMA, visit wwema.org.

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