An increase in retirements, along with a shortage of young workers interested in filling vacant roles, combine to create an impending labor shortage for the water and wastewater industry. In this blog, we will explore how your water or wastewater utility can attract a younger generation of qualified operators, and increase retention of existing workers to protect against the impact of the labor shortage.
How Will the Labor Shortage Impact You?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1/3 of the water sector workforce will become eligible to retire over the next 10 years. When these water retirees leave, they will take with them “historic knowledge of the system or facility” they work at, according to Brian McGovern with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Small municipalities, where operators wear many hats and carry unrecorded knowledge of their systems, will lose the workers most familiar with their plants. Without an effective strategy, plants could become understaffed, and struggle to perform repairs and provide clean water for the general public.
Attracting a New Generation of Workers
Unlike previous generations, Generation Z (those born after 1997) grew up in a world marked by massive technological innovation. Many in this generation desire careers in fast-paced, technological fields. A recent Career Interest Survey revealed the top industries high school students seek to enter as "medicine/health (37 percent); sciences (17 percent); and biology/biotechnology (17 percent)." Now more than ever, fewer young adults will look to the water and wastewater industry.
How communities are trying to cope
To combat this problem in the United States, organizations like the American Water Works Association, National Rural Water Association, Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Water Environment Federation, and others have developed strategies to attract young workers. In October of 2020, the EPA, in partnership with Congress, launched an initiative, entitled America's Water Sector Workforce Initiative to tackle this issue:
"[The Initiative] convenes the resources across the government and the water sector by bringing discrete efforts together under one umbrella to more effectively bolster water careers and reach the next generation of the nation's water protection specialists." — America’s Water Sector Workforce Initiative, EPA
The role new technologies play in attracting young workers
In conjunction with measures like the EPA's initiative, plants need solutions to make the daily life of a water utility operator more appealing, flexible, and modernized. The key is new technology.
New technologies attract young workers and alleviate many of the challenges the water industry faces. Remote access, in particular, helps organizations to modernize and bring operational change, create flexibility among schedules, and reduce the amount of time workers spend on-site. For Generation Z, remote access makes the water and wastewater industry more technologically savvy, and sophisticated. While older generations of workers might experience a learning curve when adapting to newer technologies, younger generations can pick them up rapidly.
Retaining Existing Workers
The importance of quality of life
Most utilities require operators to remain on-site 24/7. Working long hours, in potentially dangerous conditions, and sometimes in inclement weather, can lead to rapid burn out. Working late shifts can impair sleep patterns, overall health, and quality of life.
In the United States, nearly 15 million Americans work a permanent night shift or regularly rotate in and out of night shifts. The impact of working late hours on the body can be dangerous. Operators who consistently work at night disrupt their circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycle part of the body's internal clock, that tells you when to sleep, and when to wake up. The associated fatigue can increase the risk of injury, and also impair cognitive abilities and reflexes, mood, and increase the body's susceptibility to disease.
How to improve operator happiness
Preventing high worker turnover boils down to ensuring operator happiness. To retain existing workers, water and wastewater plants must prevent operators from experiencing negative health impacts, and increase their quality of life and job satisfaction. One method is to reduce the amount of time operators spend on-site, working late hours.
Remote access lets operators address problems instantly—from afar. If they need to tend to a pump in the middle of the night, they can access equipment via phone or computer, without leaving their home. If your plant requires some operators to remain on-site at all times, remote access helps your team accomplish more work with fewer people, reducing the number of workers who operate late-night shifts. With fewer operators on-site during undesirable hours, you reduce the risk of burnout and increase your workers' overall job satisfaction and quality of life.
Where to Go From Here
If your utility has not already begun to consider ways to attract and retain workers, you need to plan out how and where to spend money to prevent your facilities from becoming short-staffed. Take the time to evaluate how to improve the quality of life of existing workers, and plan for how to attract a new workforce as well. You may find that implementing a technology such as remote access will provide an effective solution to help mitigate the impending workforce shortage.
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