Essential: The Next Generation of Water Workers

Feb. 23, 2021
APWA is highlighting the need for these essential careers to make water a career of choice in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved the importance of reliable drinking water and wastewater services. Not only are more people working from home, increasing their usage of water services, but health experts are also advising Americans to wash their hands more often to prevent transmission of the virus.

Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have continued to work despite the additional risks to themselves. With split shifts, enhanced personal protective equipment use, and remote monitoring, water utilities have continued to provide the most basic of human needs - clean drinking water and safe wastewater services. While many industries were forced to diminish or even to suspend their operations, no such option existed for water and wastewater and, as noted above, in many locations, their work increased.

Many of these essential workers are members of the American Public Works Association (APWA). Water sector professionals certainly fall within the essential worker category, and it makes one wonder what would we ever do without these workers?

We might be closer to having an answer to that question than you think. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, approximately 1/3 of U.S. drinking water and wastewater operators will be eligible for retirement by 2028. Because the water workforce tends to be slightly older than the average age for other sectors, thousands of water utilities will need to be prepared to fill vacancies to ensure the needs of their communities can be met.

To give perspective on the scope of the water sector, according to Brookings, approximately 1.7 million workers were directly involved in “designing, constructing, operating, and governing our nation’s water infrastructure.” And while that is a massive number of workers, most water and wastewater utilities only employ one or two people. 85 percent of water and wastewater utilities have three or fewer employees.

When considering these statistics, it really hits home how quickly a water provider can become shorthanded. If you live in a rural area where the water provider has only two employees, if one of those employees is hired away, you’re suddenly operating at 50% capacity. And while someone may be hired immediately, jobs in the water sector are highly specialized and usually require early and ongoing training. That specific problem will continue to grow, as technology in the water sector is becoming more advanced, requiring workers in the field to employ water sector workers with specialized technical skills.

The very recent experience in Oldsmar, Fla., is illustrative that these workers also serve as buffers to cyberattacks and must be trained in emergency response skills as well.

And while there is a need for a basic technical skillset and ongoing technical training to work in the water sector, water sector professions require less formal education than the U.S. workforce overall. Workers in the water sector require more experiential learning, as well as ongoing certification or accreditation, in which APWA is deeply involved. Also, water sector workers can often enter the workforce sooner, as they can gain credentials on the job. Water workers often obtain this training through “earn and learn” Registered Apprenticeships operated by the Department of Labor or career and technical education courses offered at technical and community colleges, and APWA will continue to advocate for support and funding to these programs that are critical to a skilled water workforce.  However, despite the availability of these programs and other workforce development initiatives, water utilities have found that filling positions is difficult because many potential hires simply are not aware of the opportunities the industry offers.

Water and wastewater are not, to say the least, ‘sexy’ careers. Until NBC adds “Chicago Streets and Sanitation” to its One Chicago franchise, this will remain the case.

That issue is not unique to the water sector, and in fact impacts the entire public works profession. APWA has been working with the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to ensure the wide range of public works careers are properly outlined in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system that is operated by BLS. Additionally, we have reached out to the Department of Education regarding its Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) system that categorizes fields of study to ensure credentialing and technical education courses leading to careers in public works are appropriately reflected. The SOC and CIP system is utilized by career counselors across the country to assist students and job seekers in finding new career paths.

The federal government has recognized this problem, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to help alleviate it. For the past few years, the Agency has been working with stakeholders, including APWA, to find ways to drive potential hires into jobs in the water sector.

To that end, the Agency released America’s Water Workforce Initiative in October of 2020. The Initiative is a commitment between the federal government and state governments, local government, tribal governments, water associations, and individual utilities, to make water a career of choice through education and sustained public outreach.

Congress is also working to provide solutions to the problem of a potential water workforce worker shortage. In the process of developing infrastructure legislation in the 116th Congress, the House crafted language that would allow states to use up to 1% of their allocation from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) as workforce development grants. Given current funding numbers, that amount would total $16 million in funding for Fiscal Year 2021. However, while utilities would certainly welcome workforce development funding, the CWSRF provides low-cost financing for a range of water quality infrastructure projects. Splitting some of that money off specifically for workforce development forces communities to choose between infrastructure investment and workforce development. APWA and its members have advocated for Congressional solutions that focus directly on the workforce issue.

In 2018, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill included language that created the Innovative Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Grants program at EPA. That program authorizes EPA to award grants to institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations, or labor organizations for a wide range of activities including bridge programs for water utilities, educational programs to increase public awareness of career opportunities in the water sector, and leadership development. This program is authorized at $3 million for Fiscal Year 2021.

APWA is supportive of this program and similar ones. But there is still a disconnect between the public and the funding agencies on one hand, and the fact that public works departments across the country often are the chief water provider for a given area. With that in mind, APWA’s Government Affairs team went to work with staff for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to amend the EPA grants program to make public works departments and agencies a named eligible entity in the statute.

The reason for the amendment is simple: public works departments across the country are already doing the activities related to workforce that the grant program is designed to support. Yet, because public works departments do not fit the definition of an eligible entity, they would not be considered for funds. By citing public works specifically as eligible for these funds, we would be opening the door for more of these activities to be undertaken by public works departments, and more vital positions being filled.

APWA staff reached out to Senate staff with suggestions, which were quickly met with agreement. Both sides of the aisle agreed that the APWA language would be beneficial. After several conversations with the Office of Legislative Counsel to perfect the language, we hit upon language that would make public works agencies eligible for the grant program. In addition, the language added a definition of public works departments and the work they do in the water sector. Adding such a definition to the statute will give public works a firm grounding in law for the work that they do in the water sector, serving as a reference for future legislative efforts.

But being Washington, D.C., nothing ever goes in a straight line. The APWA language was included in S. 3591, America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which was passed unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May of 2020. Writing and passing a bill that encompasses so many different pieces requires a lot of agreement, and while both sides of the aisle in both the House and the Senate agree there is a need for assistance in filling vital water workforce positions throughout the country, APWA’s language is just a small part of a much larger bill. When other portions of the WRDA legislation became a sticking point, the APWA language was dropped, along with many other portions, to pass the expiring portions of the legislation.

While disappointing, this scenario is not unusual in the policymaking world. We know colleagues that have been working to pass specific legislative language for years. While APWA certainly hopes passing this language will not be that arduous a process, we are willing to put in the necessary time and work. APWA’s Government Affairs team is already working with members of Congress and their staff, as well as Congressional committees, to bring up the workforce language again in the 117th Congress, which just began at the New Year. We have already had discussions with Senate staff to lead a policy roundtable on water workforce issues early in this Congressional session, with the goal of including our language in legislation that will be taken up by the Senate soon.

The process of passing policy solutions through our legislative system is very often a marathon rather than a sprint. But the importance of having our water sector fully staffed means that the race is worth finishing. 

About the Author

Mike Millette

Mike Millette is Public Works Director for South Elgin, IL and Government Affairs Committee Chair for the American Public Works Association.

About the Author

Sean Garcia

Sean Garcia is Government Affairs Manager, American Public Works Association.