By Victoria Johnson, Water Equity Program Consultant, Jacobs Engineering

June 25, 2019

As water equity and its impact on vulnerable populations gains more national attention, water utilities are in a unique position to become leaders in achieving equity and access in underserved communities. Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) has faced this challenge head on by releasing a water equity roadmap titled, An Equitable Water Future: Louisville. With support from the US Water Alliance, the report conducts an in-depth assessment of the equity landscape in Louisville and illustrates how utilities can build equity in Louisville’s infrastructure workforce and contracting practices, so that all residents have an opportunity to enjoy the economic and social benefits resulting from investments in the city’s infrastructure.

Water infrastructure in the US is in desperate need of rehabilitation and repair, and many of these assets and projects take place in our most vulnerable communities. Low-income people and communities of color in Louisville have historically been affected by a legacy redlining, and today disproportionately impacted by water-related factors such as aging infrastructure, affordability and flooding issues, as well as barriers to participating in the local infrastructure workforce and contracting opportunities. An Equitable Water Future: Louisville addresses these barriers and provides solutions generated by government-led investments in water infrastructure. Among the report’s recommended actions are changes to procurement and hiring policies, as well as more intentional cross-agency collaboration on workforce and skills training and mentoring potential employees from the city’s vulnerable communities.

Due to increased frequency of storm events and climate change, rebuilding and rehabilitating our water and wastewater infrastructure is critical. With billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs to fill, this creates a great opportunity to maximize investments in water infrastructure to boost the economy, create jobs and provide a variety of community benefits to rate payers.

According to Renewing the Water Workforce, written by the Brookings Institution with contributions by MSD, who served as a research source, water workers tend to be older and lack gender and racial diversity in certain occupations. With high unemployment in underserved communities, coupled with record vacancies left by retiring baby boomers in the water sector, who are projected to retire at 30% in the next 5 years, this is a unique opportunity for utilities to fill its human resources gap with members of the community who are in need of work, and traditionally not recruited for opportunities in the water sector.

The Louisville Water Equity Taskforce convened a diverse team of local stakeholders and community organizations to leverage influence and impact to achieve equity. Led by MSD, the team consists of leaders from Louisville Metro Government, Louisville Water Company, Louisville Urban League, Transit Authority of River City (TARC), Jacobs Engineering and formerly Where Opportunity Knox. This unique mix of veterans’ advocates, infrastructure (water and transit) leaders, community organizers and government officials convened with a common goal to create a plan to achieve positive outcomes in Louisville’s most vulnerable communities.

Louisville Water Equity Taskforce at the 2018 Utility Workforce Development Convening, hosted by Louisville MSD

With a focus on workforce development, An Equitable Water Future: Louisville identifies specific actions necessary to achieve equity through intentional actions in procurement and hiring practices, and the development of equity-focused programs. The report also explores a variety of community benefits including apprenticeship programs, technical and soft skills training, community benefits programming, procurement incentives, youth education in water, supplier diversity and intentional hiring practices with local contractors. While the primary focus is on the infrastructure workforce, the report also explores local issues around water affordability, aging infrastructure, flooding and climate impacts, and funding constraints. For each of these areas, the report outlines recommendations that agencies and organizations in Louisville can take to advance equitable water management.

The report identifies specific actions to engage the community in procurement opportunities, including Can You Dig it, an annual meeting of local contractors, minority- and women-owned businesses and prime engineering consultants. Hosted by MSD, Can You Dig It is a collaborative effort with Louisville Water Company to share contracting opportunities from their multi-million dollar capital improvement programs to promote partnerships between prime consultants, contractors and minority- and women-owned businesses. It is also a forum for contractors to learn about MSD’s local project needs, and hire members of the community through MSDJoblink, the agency’s workforce-focused jobs portal.

Can You Dig It is an annual outreach event forlocal contractors, minority- and women-owned businesses and prime engineering consultants, hosted by Louisville MSD with participation from Louisville Water Company and Metro Government to share contracting opportunities from its capital improvement programs.

An Equitable Water Future: Louisville also shares strategic partnerships with local organizations with similar workforce needs. TARC, the local transit agency in Louisville, also faces challenges including an aging workforce nearing retirement and limited resources to replace vacancies due to retirement. Both the transit and water sectors have similar skills and certifications needs, including licensed commercial drivers and operations and maintenance staff. Louisville Urban League provides training opportunities for community members in a variety of skilled-trades including construction, laborers, heavy equipment operators and commercial drivers. Where Opportunity Knox (now dissolved) helped veterans translate skills acquired during active duty to the public sector as they search for employment after leaving the military. Veterans often have skilled-trades and leadership experience that qualify them for jobs in the water sector. Like MSD, Louisville Water Company has human resource needs to staff projects resulting from its capital improvement program and Louisville Metro Government’s Human Relations Commission is committed to ensuring positive outcomes for all Louisville residents through increasing access and opportunities.

Louisville MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott discusses how investments in water infrastructure create jobs and benefit the community

To enable an equitable future for all, leaders in Louisville recognize that policies and practices must be intentional and focused on the needs of the most vulnerable communities, so that the entire city and metro area can realize its full potential. The planned investments in water, wastewater and transportation infrastructure will provide a platform where existing policies can be modified, and new programs developed to ensure Louisville is creating job opportunities for the local workforce. An Equitable Water Future: Louisville gives the city an opportunity to proactively reverse the historical practices that have created barriers for vulnerable members of the community, and build momentum towards revitalizing neighborhoods, grow the job market, and promote financial vibrancy for all citizens of Louisville—now and for future generations.