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Prospective students tour the Cuyamaca College Water and Wastewater Technology lab facilities during a recent open house. Photo: Water Authority

Aging Water Workforce Spurs Industry Recruiting Efforts

A flood of water industry professionals nearing retirement has prompted local agencies to form a task force charged with assessing ways to develop the water workforce of the future. Education leaders are stepping up outreach to fill their career training programs, and water agencies are looking for new ways to attract employees.

“For many years now, we’ve been talking about the ‘Silver Tsunami’ of aging baby boomers who are going to be leaving the workforce, but it really is coming to fruition now,” said Don Jones, who helped spearhead Cuyamaca College’s new Center for Water Studies housing the college’s Water & Wastewater Technology program. “Almost one-third of water industry professionals will be at or nearing retirement age in the next few years. When you combine that with the fact that the unemployment rate is already at record or near-record lows and other industries are facing the same challenges and going after the same people we are, we have some serious work to do.”

Those concerns have spurred the San Diego County Water Authority and other agencies to convene a regional task force comprising utility directors and general managers, which has been meeting for months to assess workforce-related challenges, collect and analyze employment data, and craft a plan for moving forward.

Water industry offers competitive salaries

At the Fallbrook Public Utility District approximately 40 percent of the agency’s 68 employees will be eligible to retire within five years. Seventeen percent are currently eligible for retirement. Photo: Fallbrook PUD

Approximately 40 percent of the Fallbrook Public Utility District ‘s 68 employees will be eligible to retire within five years. Seventeen percent are currently eligible for retirement. Photo: Fallbrook PUD

The regional water and wastewater industry expects to need to fill approximately 400 positions annually to keep pace with retirements and vacancies caused by employees leaving the area.

The challenges face both large and small agencies. In the City of San Diego, 640 of approximately 1,600 water industry professionals will be eligible to retire within the next three to four years. At the Fallbrook Public Utility District approximately 40 percent of the agency’s 68 employees will be eligible to retire within five years. Seventeen percent are currently eligible for retirement.

“These are good-paying jobs with good benefits, but you just don’t find a lot of people coming out of school who are interested, and we are struggling to attract skilled employees from the private sector,” said Jack Bebee, Fallbrook general manager.

Bebee pointed to the recent posting of a senior engineering position at the utility that pays an annual salary of close to $150,000. The district thought the salary would be competitive enough to draw people from the private sector, but only one of four applicants was from the private sector. When Bebee was hired for a similar position nine years ago, he competed against 40 other applicants.

A 2018 Brookings Institution report notes the employment void exists even though water workforce occupations not only pay more on average compared to all occupations nationally, but also pay up to 50 percent more to workers at the lower ends of the income scale. In San Diego County, water and wastewater plant and systems operators are earning an average salary of $70,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Skilled workers needed to operate increasingly complex systems

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that fewer people may be needed in coming years as water and wastewater plants become more automated, a skilled workforce is required to operate increasingly complex controls and systems. Some of the most advanced facilities in the world are in Southern California, including the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the naton’s largest desalination plant.

Local educational efforts in the industry are addressing the potential worker shortage:

  • Palomar College’s Water and Wastewater Technology programs, provides pre-employment training and advanced courses for people who want to become certified as a water or wastewater operator.
  • The Water Authority’s student internship program pays $12 an hour and has interns working at four different water agencies throughout the year.
  • California State University, San Marcos Certificate in Water Management & Leadership program is geared toward workers already employed as intermediate-level supervisors in the water industry and offers training and skills needed for higher management positions.
  • The Center for Water Studies at Cuyamaca College.

The Brookings report noted the glut of retirements offers an opportunity to diversify the industry. In January, the Center for Water Studies held the first in an annual series of Women in Water symposiums, attracting several hundred women and high school girls from throughout Southern California interested in a new career.

“Challenges can prompt people to get together and look at new ways of doing things,” said Greg Thomas, general manager at the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District in Escondido. “This is a great industry, it pays well, and you’re doing something good for people and society.”

 

Alfred and Audrey Vargas with Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer after they were awarded first place in the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair for designing a device that could treat wastewater and generate electricity. Photo: Water Authority

San Diego County Students Shape the Future of Water

On April 25, the San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors honored the latest group of water-related award winners from the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair as part of the agency’s effort to inspire young people to pursue water industry careers.

This year’s middle school and high school science and engineering projects displayed a wide range of innovative ways to solve a variety of water issues people face today.

In the senior division, Alfred and Audrey Vargas won the first place award with the design of a new device to treat wastewater and generate electricity simultaneously using hydrogen fuel cell technology. The siblings, who attend Sweetwater High School, also won their division last year and continue their work in designing devices and systems that can potentially be used in developing countries where resources are scarce.

Alfred and Audrey Vargas combined their passion for science and engineering with an awareness of water issues to design a device that treats wastewater and generates electricity. Photo: Water Authority

Alfred and Audrey came back this year to win the senior division for the second time. Alfred is heading to UC Berkeley in the fall to study chemical engineering, and Audrey will continue developing their designs in her last two years of high school. Photo: Water Authority

Alfred and Audrey have been competing in science fairs since they were in middle school and have always been inspired by a drive to solve world water issues in affordable ways.

“As we’re looking for the next generation of water industry professionals, events like the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair are the perfect opportunity to connect with and support students who are already interested in relevant water issues,” said Water Authority principal public affairs representative Risa Baron, who helped select the winners. “These young thinkers and inventors can make huge strides in solving future water challenges around the world.”

Finding inspiration in the natural world

Cambridge School student Emily Tianshi won the second place award in the senior division. She looked beyond the ocean views at Torrey Pines State Park to see the intelligent ways that nature sustains itself and how those can be imitated.

Emily spent the past three years perfecting a design for a device that can capture moisture from the air like Torrey Pine needles do. Using 3-D printing technology to bring her project to life, Emily demonstrated that the naturally occurring ridges of Torrey Pine needles efficiently collect water, and she designed a model of a device that would mimic the shape of the needles.

Middle school students display stellar scientific knowledge and creativity

The winners of the junior division show off their awards with Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer. Photo: Water Authority

The winners of the junior division show off their awards with Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer. Photo: Water Authority

In the junior division, Brendan Cordaro and Max Shaffer from Saint John School in Encinitas teamed up to win first place with “The Water Maker,” a homemade device that transformed a miniature refrigerator into a means of collecting water from the air.

Oliver Trojanowski, who is also a middle school student at the Saint John School, won the second place award in the junior division. Oliver surveyed several sites in the region to test for water quality and determine toxicity levels in stormwater runoff.

Matthew Angulo from the Corfman School in El Centro earned the third place award in the junior division. He travelled over 100 miles to showcase his results from several tests of water samples from the Colorado River.

Welcoming the next generation of water professionals and leaders

More than 2,800 people across all levels of educational attainment work at the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies to provide safe and reliable water supplies to the region.

The Water Authority and its member agencies are committed to fostering the next generation of industry professionals and leaders. Engineers, system operators, maintenance technicians, customer service representatives and utility workers are just some of the many careers available in the water industry.