Encinitas, CA — Olivenhain Municipal Water District has been named one of San Diego’s “Top Workplaces” by the San Diego Union-Tribune. The recognition is provided to those San Diego County employers best demonstrating workplace excellence based on anonymous surveys completed by employees.
State legislation co-sponsored by the San Diego County Water Authority and the Otay Water District has been signed into law, making it possible for veterans to receive credit for their military education and experience when applying for civilian water and wastewater system operator certifications in California.
State legislators, water industry leaders, veteran advocates and business and community organizations gathered at the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park today to celebrate Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of Assembly Bill 1588.
The bill was introduced in the state legislature by Assemblymembers Todd Gloria (San Diego) and Adam Gray (Merced), and co-authored by several state legislators, including Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath (Oceanside).
The Water Authority and the Otay Water District co-sponsored the bill to increase the number of military veterans entering the civilian water and wastewater industry at a time when many Baby Boomers are retiring.
‘Silver Tsunami’ of retirements in water industry
“The new law helps our communities two ways – by lowering employment barriers for our veterans and sustaining our vital water and wastewater services for the next generation,” said Water Authority Board Secretary Christy Guerin. “This was a victory for San Diego and the whole state – a successful, bipartisan effort that will help maintain our economy and quality of life.”
The Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have created a regional workforce development task force to address the “Silver Tsunami” of retirees. The task force reported that there are approximately 4,500 water and wastewater positions in the San Diego region – and more than 1,400 of those workers are expected to reach retirement age by 2024. Statewide, there are approximately 6,000 active certified wastewater treatment plant operators and approximately 35,000 drinking water treatment and distribution operators.
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 approach existed in California.
Creating bridges to water industry jobs
“What we are missing, and what this bill addresses, is a pathway in which we honor the experience of our veterans and allow that experience to qualify them for a career path in our civilian water systems,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria. “Thanks to Governor Newsom, that pathway now exists. California will now properly credit the service of our veterans and enable them to secure good-paying jobs here in our water system. In this time – when the importance of clean water and good paying jobs is undeniable – let’s create bridges not barriers.”
AB 1588 provides a pathway for military veterans to apply their advanced skills and experience toward state and industry-supplied certifications in the water and wastewater treatment and distribution operator fields. Additionally, it ensures that advanced water treatment operators and distribution system operators of potable reuse and recycled water facilities have a career advancement path as certified water and/or wastewater treatment plant operators.
“San Diego County is home to more than 240,000 veterans with skills that benefit our region in numerous ways,” said Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas, a co-author of the bill. “With this legislation, we are building stronger communities that can remain home to servicemembers after they take off the uniform and transition into civilian life.”
Veterans continue public service in water industry
Assistant Chief of Water Operations at the Otay Water District Jose Martinez is a veteran who initiated the idea of the bill and has thrived in the civilian water industry. “As someone who had the pleasure to serve alongside the members of the military responsible for the safe and reliable operation of water and wastewater systems, I observed firsthand their education, experience and dedication,” he said.
“Now, as a water manager responsible for providing safe and reliable water and wastewater services to the public, I championed this bill to provide a path for veterans to receive the certification credit they have earned after years of service. This will ensure that the water sector continues to recruit from the biggest and best talent pools to provide the highest level of service to everyone.”
The Fallbrook Public Utility District’s intern program is designed to prepare potential future employees to fill jobs that open up due to the ‘silver tsunami’ or wave of retirements in the water industry.
Mary Maciel, a junior at Fallbrook High, is Fallbrook Public Utility District’s second paid summer intern. She spends four hours a day each Wednesday working with each department including public affairs, customer service, engineering, construction and maintenance, engineering, water and wastewater operations, and meter reading.
The goal of the internship is to increase interest in FPUD and potentially draw local talent to the district. It is designed to identify career opportunities in the water industry and provide a hands-on learning experience leading to a career with the Fallbrook agency.
Aaron Cook, the district’s senior engineer, was born in De Luz and lived in the area until he went to college. He started his career after college in other cities, but wanted to come back home. He applied for his current job as soon as he saw the opening. He has been at FPUD for nearly a year.
“It’s definitely an attractive place to work for raising a family,” Cook said.
In the next five to 10 years, FPUD expects a substantial number of employees to retire. And with retirements come job openings.
Growth trend in water industry career opportunities
Maciel says she could see herself working in the water industry in the future.
There are currently 12 FPUD employees eligible for retirement, which is about 18 percent of the district’s workforce. As previously reported on Water News Network, it is an ongoing concern for the agency.
“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 PUD general manager.
‘Silver Tsunami’ in water industry
Water News Network reports career opportunities are ample due to an imminent glut of retirements by an aging workforce. Forecasts call for between 1,200 and 1,500 open positions in the next three to four years in San Diego County alone, said Sandy Kerl, the San Diego County Water Authority’s acting general manager.
Forty percent of employees at the Padre Dam Municipal Water District will retire within the next three to five years, said Lisa Sorce, human resources director. Representatives from other utilities presented similar numbers.
For his initiative in designing and creating a new tool designed to improve safety and efficiency on the job, Sweetwater Authority employee Julio Salazar won the Association of California Water Agencies Joint Powers Insurance Authority H.R. LaBounty Safety Award.
The award recognized Salazar for creating a ‘Large AMS Stabilizing Tool.’ Salazar’s design resulted in making the process of replacing 1.5 inch and two inch angle meter stops, or AMS, easier, more ergonomic, and safer.
“Our water professionals are industry leaders, finding new ways to work smarter and safer,” said Tish Berge, general manager. “Sweetwater Authority could not be more proud of Julio’s tool and much deserved recognition.”
The H.R. LaBounty Safety Award recognizes water industry employees who implement significant safety improvements to prevent occupational injuries/illness. Winners are recognized twice a year.
See a demonstration of the new award-winning tool.
Salazar, a Utility Worker II with Sweetwater, came up with the idea after talking with co-workers about ways to improve the process. In the past, replacing an AMS often required employees to break out the meter box in order to make enough space to fit large wrenches and tools.
The process was often awkward and difficult, adding strain on the employee who had to remove the AMS at an odd angle. The concrete panel would also need to be replaced, adding to the time, cost, and safety risk associated with the replacement.
The new tool is designed to secure the AMS using meter bolts, and can be placed in-line with the service lateral. Once secured, an employee can simply use an adjustable wrench to loosen or tighten the bottom nut on the AMS. It eliminates the need to break the meter box, and gives the employee a more comfortable, ergonomic grip while working. It also makes the process safer.
Salazar says the design is similar to existing stabilizing tools, but there was nothing quite the right size for the 1.5 inch and 2 inch AMS – until now.
Water industry professionals recognized for safety improvements
The Association of California Water Agencies Joint Powers Insurance Authority – ACWA JPIA for short – is a partnership of water agencies dedicated to avoiding the high cost of commercial insurance. JPIA is a risk-sharing pool for property, liability, workers’ compensation and employee benefits, which allows for more rate stability for customers, broader coverage and expanded benefits and services than private insurance.
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.
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
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.”