Lately, there have been many discussions about developing the utility of the future and recovering energy and chemicals from water resource recovery facilities. But less is being said about the operators and the engineers who will be needed to design, manage, maintain, and operate these facilities.
Our sector is experiencing a massive changeover in personnel as the workforce ages. And with so many existing employees retiring, a crisis in the near future is possible. New employees in the industry face less transfer of knowledge from those they replace, as well as more and different required skill sets to operate the facilities handed over to them.
In many communities, people entering the workforce often find it difficult to attend conferences and seminars to build their skills. Some managers and senior employees feel these educational opportunities are “privileges” that have to be earned over time. This attitude has to change, and we must start new practices now.
New waste-recovery facilities combine wastewater treatment with electricity-generating technology and chemical-recovery processes. Working in one of these facilities will be a new experience for most, especially those just entering the industry, because these types of operations are only now being designed and put into service.
Many seminars and other learning opportunities will be developed to educate new staff. The new operator must receive more education to be able to understand and use the new technologies that will be required. The industry must adopt an attitude that enables staff members entering the wastewater treatment industry to avail themselves of these opportunities liberally.
Operators perform the day-to-day functions required to maintain the efficiency of these facilities and meet the legal requirements mandated for them; many traditionally have felt undervalued. To ensure that we can compete for competent operators in the future, new attitudes must prevail.
New attitudes also are needed to give the industry a chance to retain these new professionals. I have heard suggestions that the next generation might not be prepared to work at the same utility for 25 or 30 years until retirement, performing the same tasks day after day. They become bored and want to move on. Strategies must be devised starting now to make sure that the jobs are new and interesting — both to attract those with the skills and to keep them.
I believe that the job market is poised to become more competitive soon as the economies of North America improve. When this happens, it will again become difficult to attract workers into the sector. I believe that the new facilities will provide sufficient challenges to attract the required staff. So we must begin to inform colleges and universities of the changing industry to get the word out.
As I said in my previous column, it is indeed an exciting time to be in the industry, and this fact should be advertised. Our best and brightest minds have to be employed to develop the communication strategy to inform interested people of this fact. We no longer can allow hierarchy in our business; we must level the playing field for all.
— Cordell Samuels, WEF President 2012–2013