Written by: Mya Bonney, Project Assistant, Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center
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Public water and wastewater utilities have been referred to as “Anchor Institutions”, forming the foundation of our communities by safeguarding public health and protecting the environment. Across the United States, the water sector employs 1.7 million workers who design, construct, operate, and govern the water infrastructure that our communities depend on. Despite their crucial roles, the water sector faces a range of hidden workforce challenges that threaten work satisfaction, efficiency, and overall sustainability of the industry. These challenges, including issues in recruitment and retention, an aging workforce, skills gaps, training deficiencies, and the need for greater diversity and inclusion, jeopardize the future stability of the water workforce.

With aging infrastructure nationwide, a surge in retirements, and a growing demand for water workers, it is essential that we address these challenges head-on. Doing so will ensure a strong and resilient workforce, setting the water sector on a path to long-term success.

Winning the Talent Tug-of-War

One of the primary challenges in the municipal and water workforce is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining talent. Competition from other industries offering more competitive salaries, better career advancement opportunities, and more appealing work environments often lures potential candidates away.

Retention is equally problematic, with burnout and limited career progression opportunities contributing to high turnover rates. The demanding nature of the work, coupled with insufficient support from supervisors and inadequate work-life balance, exacerbates this issue. To combat these problems, investment in comprehensive employee benefits, enhanced job-site training, and continuous educational opportunities is essential. Creating a supportive work environment and fostering a sense of organizational commitment can significantly improve retention rates and job performance among municipal and water workers.

Navigating the Silver Tide

The aging workforce is another pressing concern as approximately one-third of drinking

water and wastewater operators in the U.S. will be eligible for retirement within the next decade. A significant proportion of workers in the sector are nearing retirement age, which poses challenges for succession planning and knowledge transfer. As experienced workers retire, there is a risk of losing valuable institutional knowledge and expertise. Addressing this requires proactive strategies, such as mentoring programs where retiring workers can transfer their knowledge to younger employees, and developing robust succession plans to ensure a seamless transition.

Bridging the Skills Gap

The skills gap is a critical issue, with many job seekers lacking the qualifications and expertise demanded by employers. Rapid technological advancements and evolving job requirements in the water infrastructure and municipal services sectors exacerbate this gap. Employers often find that prospective employees do not possess the necessary skills to meet the demands of modern infrastructure projects and water management systems. Addressing this gap requires targeted on-the-job training and the development of accessible and affordable exam and certification study materials. Ensuring that workers can easily acquire and demonstrate the required competencies is crucial for bridging the skills gap.

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Nurturing Skills and Knowledge

Continuous training and education are vital to keep the workforce updated with the latest industry practices and technologies. Research underscores the need for ongoing professional development programs to help workers adapt to changing technologies and methods. Furthermore, there is a pressing need for schools to introduce curricula that spark interest in careers within the water sector and other infrastructure fields. Early education initiatives can help build a pipeline of future professionals equipped with the knowledge and enthusiasm needed to meet industry demands.

Diversity and Inclusion

Enhancing diversity and inclusion within the water sector and municipal workforce is another critical area for improvement. A diverse workforce brings varied perspectives and solutions, which are essential for innovation and problem-solving in these fields. It’s important for the workforce to mirror the communities they serve, as a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve is better equipped to understand and address their specific needs and challenges. Efforts to increase diversity should reach beyond Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion training and include more structured initiatives such as recruitment campaigns, inclusive workplace policies, and programs that support underrepresented groups. Fostering an inclusive environment where all employees feel valued and supported can enhance job satisfaction, foster organizational belonging, and improve performance, ultimately benefiting the entire sector.

The Wichita State University Environmental Finance Center has a YouTube playlist curated for insights into Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) principles and strategies to nurture inclusive work environments.

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Research Gaps: The Incumbent Workforce Issue

While much of the existing research focuses on the challenges of recruiting new talent, there remains a significant gap in understanding the workforce dynamics experienced by current industry professionals, including identifying which roles are being vacated and where they are going. Addressing this gap is crucial for developing comprehensive strategies that not only attract new talent but also promote career progression and enhance retention among existing staff. By understanding the specific challenges faced by today’s water workforce—such as job satisfaction, career development, navigating adversity, and overall workplace conditions—we can cultivate a more resilient and sustainable work environment, benefitting both incoming recruits and seasoned employees alike.

Building a Resilient Workforce

By addressing these underlying challenges, the water sector can cultivate a more resilient and capable workforce, enhancing the attraction for new recruits while also improving the fulfillment and satisfaction of current employees. Collaboration among policymakers, industry leaders, and educational institutions is crucial to tackling these challenges and bridging resource gaps in communities that need it most, ensuring that the water sector continues to thrive and serve communities everywhere.