How often do we get a chance to tackle multiple challenges at once? According to a new report from the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, improving workforce development in the water industry, and across infrastructure sectors broadly, gives us an opportunity to do just that. The report, titled Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving Water Infrastructure and Creating a Pipeline to Opportunity, offers a response to two critical issues that our country needs to address.
The first is the state of our infrastructure, particularly our water systems. Having worked for decades past its intended life span, our water infrastructure is aging and failing. And it is not just the infrastructure that is aging. According to the report, thousands of water workers are expected to retire in the near future, with 45.2 percent of water workers falling between 35 to 54 years of age. With too few younger workers to replace retirees, the sector is facing widespread vacancies. By recruiting new and younger skilled laborers, utilities will be able to fill the vacant posts that are needed to address the challenges of our aging water systems.
The second issue is that water utility workforces often do not reflect the demographics of the communities in which they are located. According to the report, in 2016 nearly 85 percent of the water workforce were male and two-thirds were white. The report also noted that black and Hispanic workers were especially underrepresented in higher-level engineering or managerial occupations. However, utilities are often located in low-income communities and communities of color that often face unemployment or underemployment. By establishing job and life skills training programs for those underrepresented in the industry, the water sector can create a more diverse workforce and combat poverty and unemployment, particularly in marginalized communities.
Although water workers can be found in every market throughout the country, water infrastructure and those who work on it are largely out of sight and out of mind. However, the water industry has benefits to offer prospective candidates, especially those who are from low-income backgrounds or who do not hold four-year degrees, by providing a path to middle-class careers. According to the report, 53 percent of water workers hold a high school diploma or lower. However, the report notes that while most water workers need less formal education, the industry still pays up to 50 percent more to workers at lower ends of the income scale, as compared to other occupations nationally.
The report highlights how the water sector has not marketed itself as having desirable career opportunities. To foster the next generation of the water workforce, employers need to make the benefits known to young job seekers and invest in training. The Brookings report highlights how the development of proactive recruitment strategies, on-the-job experience, and training programs is essential. By looking for talent in potentially nontraditional places and addressing the experience requirements to reduce barriers to entry, the water sector can broaden its candidate base and meet employment needs.
However, individual employers cannot be solely responsible for these strategies and programs. The Brookings report calls for a “new water workforce playbook” that involves stakeholders at all levels. Utilities and other water employers need to drive on-the-the ground actions, such as empowering staff and piloting new programs to address workforce gaps. But, the report emphasizes that regional cooperation, community partnership, and national and state governmental action are needed to provide support and resources to make programs efficient and replicable. Employers can learn from their peers and develop best practice strategies from others’ experiences through consistent dialogue and by pooling resources at the regional level. At the national and state governmental level, the report calls for targeted investments and clearer technical guidance to aid employers with the rollout of these new programs.
The development of new recruitment, hiring, and training practices in the water sector will require the collaboration of all many different parties, including employers, educational institutions, workforce coalitions, and governmental agencies. Together, stakeholders will need to challenge the status quo, but the benefits to communities is well worth the effort. Creating pathways to new careers protecting public health and the environment provides communities opportunities to improve their well-being. At the same time, developing a renewed, young, more diverse water workforce will ensure the maintenance and operation of our critical water infrastructure as exiting retirees leave their posts. The Brookings report makes it clear: by investing in workforce development programs, we are investing in the future of our water systems and building resilient communities.