Gov. Accountability Office report looks at water system workforce

Jan. 30, 2018
The report looked at 11 utilities, noting reported difficulty in hiring qualified operators.  

WASHINGTON, DC, JAN 30, 2018 -- A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on water utility workforce problems was released this week. The report looked at a sample of 11 utilities across the U.S. to determine hiring needs for the industry in the coming years. Among the major findings was uncertainty about how federal legislation will affect the number of workers needed to replace those aging out of water utility jobs.

From the report: "Projections from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggest that workforce replacement needs for water operators are roughly similar to workforce needs nationwide across all occupations; however, little is known about the effects of any unmet needs on compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. BLS has projected that 8.2 percent of existing water operators will need to be replaced annually between 2016 and 2026. Although BLS projections are intended to capture long-run trends, rather than to forecast precise outcomes in specific years, this predicted replacement rate is roughly similar to the predicted rate of 10.9 percent for all workers across the U.S. economy. Limited information is available to determine whether retirements, or other workforce needs, are affecting drinking water and wastewater utilities' ability to comply with the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water acts."

On a national level, neither the water utilities' industry associations nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has analyzed whether there is a relationship between unmet workforce needs and compliance problems. GAO suggested in the report that EPA change their guidance on workforce planning to mitigate staffing issues in the water sector in coming years.

GAO has found that "future workforce needs can be identified through strategic workforce planning, which involves developing long-term strategies for acquiring, developing, and retaining staff to achieve program goals. By adding questions to EPA's inspection guidance on strategic workforce planning, such as the number of positions needed in the future, EPA could help make this information available for states to assess future workforce needs. Information on future workforce needs could help states and utilities identity potential workforce issues and take action as needed."

Five federal agencies that GAO reviewed -- EPA and the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Labor (DOL), Education, and Veterans Affairs (VA) -- have programs or activities that can assist utilities with their workforce needs in several ways, whether through guidance, funding, or training.

Based on the report's findings, GAO recommends that EPA add strategic workforce planning questions, such as the positions and skills needed in the future, to its inspection guidance documents. Read the report here.