Water equipment manufacturers, their customer base (municipal water and wastewater utilities), and non-profit and for-profit organizations alike currently face a fluid workforce environment. Not only does it mean employers must manage high staff turnovers rates, it means they must rethink recruitment practices, overall work flexibility, and how best to identify the next pipeline of candidates.
In 2020 and early 2021, my work commute seemed as pleasant as in 1994, when I began my daily commute to Kansas City metro from the college town of Lawrence. The easy, no traffic experience was thanks to one of today’s commonly heard acronyms — WFH (work from home). Though WFH is not a new practice, it has historically been limited to a small pool of sales, computer, and other professions. With health concerns a top priority, the pandemic transformed how we conduct business. In the water and wastewater industry, however, WFH had its limitations, given personnel must be present to weld or perform O&M activities at utilities 24/7. As we emerge from the pandemic, even industries that more easily adapted to WFH configurations struggle with finding the right in-person/WFH balance to ensure organizations can maintain their work culture while being able to attract and retain top talent.
Rethinking flexibility does not mean we must offer WFH to retain talent, however. Flexibility can be delivered in many ways, including being responsive to employees’ suggestions about organizational processes or offering more responsibility and trust to staff to reward their successes. Providing opportunities for expanded responsibility can keep the workforce engaged, creative and ultimately better retained. Recruitment in our industry can be improved by conveying the sense of purpose and meaning our industry uniquely offers — whether a manufacturer, water resource recovery facility (WRRF) maintenance personnel or a plant operation supervisor, we help bring clean water to the world’s population in the form of clean drinking water or by returning only highly purified and treated effluent to our rivers and streams. This purpose or mission should be a part of your next recruitment effort and your current employees should also be reminded of this mission periodically.
Technical or trade schools and community colleges can help manufacturers negotiate the fluid workforce environment, too. I urge you to consider partnering with these groups and offering internships, equipment, or opening your facility for tours and continuing education credits. Recently, I had the pleasure of explaining what happens at a WRRF to a first-year community college STEM group. Of the approximately 30 participating students, I have learned that five have focused their career paths in the water industry. According to their professor, each one of these students found a sense of purpose in our industry.
In the fluid and ever-changing workforce environment, water and wastewater companies need to be nimble and responsive to the needs of current and future employees and explore innovative ways of offering them flexibility. Not only do trade and technical schools and local community colleges hold pools of talented employment candidates, they also hold the future of our industry itself. WW
About the Author: William Flores is vice president of municipal systems & customer service at Smith & Loveless Inc. and a member of the WWEMA Board of Directors. WWEMA is a non-profit trade association that has been working for water and wastewater technology and service providers since 1908. WWEMA’s members supply the most sophisticated leading-edge technologies and services, offering solutions to every water-related environmental problem and need facing today’s society. For more information about WWEMA, visit www.wwema.org.