Some of our workshops for small drinking water systems cover the topic of workforce planning—how do we keep our best employees, and how do we find more great employees to bring on board?  As part of the day, we ask all participants to share how they got into the water business, and we hear a variety of stories.  Some people got into the field based on the recommendation of a friend or family member.  Some start with the broader organization in other roles but eventually find themselves working in water.  Several attendees explain that they were in other fields up until the Great Recession or up until their jobs were outsourced and were looking for a job unlikely to go away.

An answer we hear very infrequently is that attendees grew up wanting to work in water.  It seems that most of us who work in this field got here by accident, and that has important implications as we consider how to maintain and grow the water workforce.  The gut feeling of many in the field is that the current water workforce is aging and that there are not many younger people entering the profession.  Thanks to some new research, we can now quantify these issues better and consider how the water workforce effort can be improved.

Recently, the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution released a comprehensive report on the state of the workforce related to water in the United States—jobs tied to drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, green infrastructure, private wells, septic systems, plumbing, and other fields.  Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving Water Infrastructure and Creating a Pipeline to Opportunity notes that “many of the nation’s water infrastructure assets are in urgent need of repair, maintenance, and restoration,” but that “workers capable of carrying out these efforts are in short supply due to an aging workforce eligible for retirement and the lack of a pipeline for new talent.”

Concerns about both the state of water infrastructure and the state of the water workforce are often intertwined.  In February 2018, President Trump released the Administration’s framework for rebuilding infrastructure in America.  The report has several sections related to different types of infrastructure, including water, and it has a separate section dedicated to workforce development.  And in January 2018, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced the bipartisan Senate Bill 2346 which notes the needed investment in water infrastructure and seeks to “establish a competitive grant program to assist the development of innovative activities relating to workforce development in the water utility sector.”

Surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are currently about 155 million Americans in the workforce.  The Brookings report estimates that about 1.7 million of those workers are directly involved in designing, constructing, operating, and governing U.S. water infrastructure, filling more than 200 different jobs.  These include positions with water systems such as operations, finance, administration, and management as well as positions with industries that support water systems such as engineering firms and construction contractors.  Water infrastructure is obviously critical for any type of business and industry, but the operation of a system—and the upkeep of that system’s infrastructure—also create local jobs.

The study found that more than 50 percent of those working in water topped out at a high school education or less, which is greater than the percentage across all occupations nationwide (32.5 percent).  On the job experience is valued more highly in the field than a college degree.  More than 75 percent of water workers need at least one year of related work experience, and 16 percent need four years or more, highlighting the need for applied learning opportunities.  But in spite of lower formal education requirements, these water jobs generally paid higher than the average job nationwide, in particular at the lower ends of the pay scale.  For example, the bottom 10 percent of wage earners in water industries were paid an average hourly rate of $14.01, compared to $9.27 for all jobs nationwide.

Finally, the study looked at the demographics of the water workforce.  Generally, the average age of most water-related jobs is above the national average for all workers.  Also, nearly 85 percent of the water workforce is male, and more than two-thirds of the workforce is white.

The report concludes with several suggestions for the water industry and for governments and civic organizations at large.  The report recommends that water employers increase their efforts to attract younger and more diverse candidates into their field, including mentorship programs and opportunities for younger workers and workers looking to make a mid-career change to explore the field and gain needed experience.  The report further recommends that community partners host events where people can learn about potential careers in the water field, with representation from across the various types of jobs.  These events would also serve as an opportunity for more coordinated planning to grow the water workforce.  Finally, the report urges federal and state governments to provide clearer technical guidance, more robust programmatic support, and targeted investments in order to enhance water workforce development.

Ultimately, the report argues that investing in infrastructure represents one of the timeliest ways for the country to support long-lasting pathways to economic opportunity for all Americans, and that the country’s water infrastructure, in particular, is well positioned to offer more durable careers to a wide variety of workers across urban and rural areas alike.

Glenn Barnes is the associate director of the Environmental Finance Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has worked since 2006. He conducts professional development courses and provides direct technical assistance to drinking water systems and other environmental service providers across the country. Glenn co-directs the EFC’s training and technical assistance program for small water systems, funded through an EPA grant. Glenn holds both a BA and an MPA from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.