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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.”

 

A bill in the California state Legislature aims to boost jobs for vets to help meet the needs of the aging water industry workforce. Photo; Water Authority

Water Authority Bill Aims to Boost Water Industry Jobs for Veterans

July 10, 2019 update: Assembly Bill 1588 passed the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on a 6-0 vote July 9 and will be considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 12.

May 29, 2019 update: Assembly Bill 1588 passed the state Assembly on a 78-0 vote on May 23 and is now under consideration by the state Senate.

A new bill in the California Legislature would provide a path for veterans transitioning to civilian employment to receive credit for their military experience and education toward certifications in the water industry.

Assembly Bill 1588 was introduced February 22 by San Diego Assemblymember Todd Gloria and Central Valley Assemblymember Adam Gray. The bill, which may be heard in committee this month, is co-sponsored by the San Diego County Water Authority and the Otay Water District in hopes of helping the state’s industry replace a wave of retiring Baby Boomers.

Several states help veterans navigate the civilian water system operator certification process and allow veterans to apply equivalency standards to credit military experiences toward state or industry certifications in water and wastewater treatment and distribution. However, no similar pathway exists in California.

‘Silver tsunami’

“The goal is to help veterans transitioning into civilian occupations, especially in the water and wastewater industry,” said Glenn Farrel, government relations manager for the Water Authority. “At a time with the water industry is facing a ‘silver tsunami’ – with thousands of workers expected to retire in coming years – veterans are returning to the civilian workforce with skills to benefit the industry and fill those jobs.”

Water and wastewater treatment is an essential industry and with an aging infrastructure and workforce. There are approximately 6,000 active certified wastewater treatment plant operators and approximately 35,000 drinking water treatment and distribution operators in California.

Challenges for water industry

Replacement of critical infrastructure components, while maintaining service to customers, is one of the greatest challenges in the water-wastewater industry today. In addition, the high pace of retirements, new technologies and increased demand for safe drinking water contribute to the pressure on the industry to augment the workforce.

“If veterans could more quickly move through the civilian certification process, the California water industry would have a much larger pool of highly skilled, motivated, and talented people eager to continue their public service careers,” Farrel said.