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US EPA launches initiative, grants to build future water workforce

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The U.S. has released a new plan to recruit and retain the next generation of its water workforce through planning, training and collaboration across the government and water sector. It hopes the investment will create resiliency for utilities, while ensuring safe drinking water and wastewater services for the public in decades to come.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) America’s Water Sector Workforce Initiative highlights the importance of choosing a career in the water sector and aims to serve as a catalyst for creating national momentum and a coordination of efforts to build the water workforce of the future. It says the water sector is not only well paid, but provides “a meaningful sense of mission and a distinct connection to public service.”

Part of the EPA’s plan is to invest $1 million to develop a new competitive grant program that promotes water utility workforce development and increases public awareness of water utilities and careers. The EPA states it will soon be issuing application requests for applications around the grant program rooted in America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which could apply to recipients such as non-profit labour organizations or non-profit community colleges.

“With roughly one-third of our water sector workforce eligible to retire in the next 10 years, this initiative is vital to recruiting and retaining the new water workforce for the 21st century,” announced EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

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The median age of water employees is 48 years and 30% to 50% of these workers will be eligible to retire within the next five to 10 years, the EPA states in its initiative.

A 2018 Brookings Institution report concluded that over 1.7 million U.S. workers with varying specialties are directly involved in designing, constructing, operating and managing water infrastructure, with over 200 different occupations, including skilled trades, technology, engineering, finance, management and administrative professions.

The EPA also states that women tend to be underrepresented in the water sector and is working with partners such as the National Summit on Women in Apprenticeship and the WANTO grant program to bolster recruitment.

Canada also struggling to build water workforce

In Canada, attracting and retaining prospects to build the water workforce of the future has been a challenge. According to a 2018 survey of nearly 200 water sector workers by Dalhousie University’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Initiative, many respondents were not optimistic about securely building the workforce. Issues such as overly-complex training standards, cost of living, and regional demographics were all blamed for staffing challenges.

In the Dalhousie report, training and certifications were more often a problem for small, remote, or medium-sized utilities, while staff retention was largely raised by small or medium-sized utilities, and cost of living by large utilities.

According to the Water Environment Federation, which has global membership that includes five Canadian water and wastewater associations, it’s projected that some 37% of water utility workers and 31% of wastewater utility workers will retire within the next decade. Additionally, a September 2020 report by ECO Canada estimates that environmental employment is expected to rise by 8%, resulting in 50,100 new jobs needing to be filled in the next decade.

Positive trends are happening in Canada though. For instance, a new 18-month drinking water treatment and environmental water management internship program for young Indigenous adults near the Manitoba-Ontario border is now being funded by Indigenous Services Canada.

The EPA, too, has been developing more outreach with Indigenous groups such as the Tribal Water Workforce Workgroup, the InterTribal Council of Arizona Wastewater Certification Project and Tribal Drinking Water Certification Programs.

The EPA has also been sharing success stories about efforts to broaden the water sector’s diversity. An example is this video from the Philadelphia Water Department that highlights Operations Crew Chief, Aaron Kirkland.

Technology and partnership opportunities

As the technologies used in the water sector become more advanced, there is a growing need to train and employ water protection specialists with specialized technical skills, the EPA states in its new workforce initiative. From smart systems, to advanced treatment processes, to information systems management, the learning curve is growing to ensure a high degree of technological competence to make data driven decisions and to track all aspects of utility operations based on up-to-date and accurate information.

“Much of the technical foundation for my current role at EPA I learned directly from the incredible wastewater treatment operators at the San Pasqual Water Reclamation Facility near San Diego, California,” announced EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross in a statement. “We need to ensure that the next generation of water protection specialists are available to protect our communities and our critical investments in water infrastructure,” he added.

The EPA says it has found some success through a utilities-learning-from-utilities model. It highlights efforts such as the state of Maine’s Water Resource Recovery Department in Saco, where there are educational opportunities to keep up with the latest wastewater technologies, research and treatment methods. This includes participation in an Operations Challenge, where the team from Maine competes against other states in different wastewater events.

The EPA’s latest workforce initiative rests heavily on partnerships, such as those with the Water Environment Federation, the American Water Works Association, and the Water Reuse Association.

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