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Developing the next-generation workforce of the water industry

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By Archis Ambulkar, Jones and Henry Engineers

Safe drinking water and effective sewage treatment systems are becoming priorities in many parts of the world. To achieve this, governments, private entities and international organizations are undertaking various water and wastewater related infrastructure projects. The need is growing steadily for specialized researchers, engineers and consultants to implement these ventures.

A need for action

Our industry is going through a crucial phase. We are experiencing the need for skilled water professionals to handle the growing number of projects. We also need to prepare for future water industry challenges such as rising populations, water scarcity, impacts of climate change, varying global precipitation patterns, deforestation and desertification. To handle such complex issues, future water leaders and experts must be nurtured, groomed and developed within communities.

Academic institutions across the globe are doing a great job of educating students. Also, many water-related organizations and federations have established programs that specifically focus on students and young professionals. Such platforms engage and encourage newcomers to get involved. However, considering future demands and water-related problems, more attention is needed towards developing a stronger workforce of smart water professionals.

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Historically, governments and private institutes have invested significant amounts of money, effort and expertise towards research and development, innovation, newer technologies and infrastructure. This has resulted in successful implementation of complex water and wastewater projects. However, significant efforts are required to attract younger talent, so that our field will be ready for upcoming challenges. For this to happen, schools, colleges, universities, governments and private institutions also need to be involved.

Rather than waiting for students and young professionals to approach us, we should reach out to them to teach them the importance of the water sector, provide an overview of the field and discuss what the industry will offer them. Being water community members, it is our responsibility to inspire the next generation and help to attract the brightest minds into our field.

Raising the water industry’s profile

The water and wastewater sector should not experience “brain-drain” due to a lack of knowledge about it when students are making important career decisions in their lives. Obviously, not everyone will end up in this profession, but basic water education can also be helpful in generating respect and awareness.

The first step is increasing interest amongst students of school age. This can be done by engaging them in various activities such as science fairs, community events, workshops, field visits, student competitions, expert lectures and so on.

With proper knowledge, interested candidates will surely give serious thought to higher education in the water field, while they are still attending their schools. Scholarships and awards will further encourage candidates to get actively involved in the water community.

The next step is increasing awareness of the profession at the college and university level. Although higher education develops technically strong graduates, knowledge gaps exist between academic education and actual professional life. Students are not always aware of the different job avenues or profiles available to them after graduating. Also, they do not have a proper understanding of exact roles and responsibilities involved with these positions.

Providing more clarity will help them select appropriate job profiles and career avenues. Getting this knowledge beforehand will not only help candidates adjust to the profession, but will also help them minimize career-path mistakes.

Industry involement

Companies should encourage internships as they provide a great opportunity for soon-to-be-graduates to learn the work environment while still pursuing their education. Internships or entry-level jobs can be full of surprises. Getting adjusted to a professional atmosphere, different types of interactions with seniors, vendors and clients, can sometimes be difficult for candidates. Proper training and guidance programs should be developed.

Additionally, young professionals should be introduced to important terminologies, tools, equipment, techniques, and other aspects of the job profile. Training in industry standards, procedures, manuals, operations and management systems will add to their knowledge and understanding of the field. Encouraging them to get involved with technical committees, conferences and seminars will expand their horizons and provide an opportunity to interact with, and learn from, peers and professionals in the field.

Mid-level professionals should get a clear idea about leadership roles, financial aspects, legal requirements, and so on, that govern the industry and an organization’s economics. And, finally, as established practitioners, experts should give back to the industry through technical publications, textbooks, lectures, etc.

Overall, as a professional community, our aim should be to strive for the betterment of society. Although there are many other professional streams that are engaged in developing newer equipment and ideas for improving the quality of life, such comforts require consumption of natural resources and to some extent exploitation of the environment. Sectors like ours are responsible for the conservation and preservation of natural resources and for ensuring that society’s basic water and sanitation needs are met.

The water industry is already making the efforts necessary to move forward. However, the forthcoming water challenges are wider, global and more complicated. Well-defined professional development programs and frameworks for young water professionals can catalyze the growth of leaders and experts in this esteemed sector. On the other hand, any negligence can create a scarcity of high quality staff to achieve technological advancements and effectively execute the water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

An intelligent, smart and visionary workforce is required to successfully handle water problems and make correct choices. We should sow the seeds of values, ethics and principles amongst the next generation to create a capable water professional community. North America has a great potential to implement such programs and to develop world leaders and laureates who can steer the water and wastewater industry in the right direction.

 Archis Ambulkar is a Project Engineer with Jones and Henry Engineers, Ltd.  He is also the author of “Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry” This 173 page book was published by International Water Association Publishing, UK

This article appears in ES&E’s November/December issue, as part of the Consultants’ Forum.

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