WEF Joins Utility Leaders in Endorsing New EPA Workforce Grants

January 20, 2020

Laws & Regs

As utilities across the U.S. brace for the workforce skills gap anticipated from the water sector’s looming silver tsunami, federal regulators and utility leadership organizations are taking action with a new grant program aimed at attracting new talent to jobs in water.

The Water Workforce Infrastructure and Utility Development Grants program was passed by U.S. Congress as part of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. The measure provides $1 million in federal funding during FY2020 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency will then set up a competitive application process to distribute the funds among utilities to support workforce development initiatives. 

Addressing the Skills Shortage

A coalition of utilities known as the Water Agency Leaders Alliance (WALA), led by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), partnered with more than a dozen other organizations including the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) to endorse the program.

“This is a significant step,” Steve Dye, WEF Legislative Director, said of U.S. Congress’ $1 million appropriation. “This initial funding was among our top legislative agenda items last year. More funding for water workforce development through this program and others is a top priority for the Federation in 2020.”

U.S. Congress recently appropriated $1 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for water sector workforce development programs in FY2020. The Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) joined a collection of water organizations in endorsing the grant program. Image courtesy of skeeze/Pixabay

As thousands of U.S. water workers near retirement age, ensuring critical water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) maintain adequate staffing to protect public health and the environment is already a significant challenge. Public awareness of water-sector opportunities tends to be low, skills training tends to be a lengthy and deterring process, and the sector has historically fallen short on efforts to attract candidates from underrepresented demographics, according to a 2018 report from the Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C.). In some cases, the silver tsunami could result in staffing vacancies as high as 50% of a utility’s workforce, the report estimates.

“At the SFPUC, nearly half of our workforce is set to retire in the next 5-10 years,” SFPUC General Manager Harlan L. Kelly Jr. said in a news release. “We need to take action now to ensure that we train the next generation of workers to fill those shoes. This grant program can help us achieve that goal.”

The release also described how the challenge of aging infrastructure is expected to create opportunity:

“Over the next decade, the country’s 30 largest water utilities are estimated to spend $23 billion on water infrastructure projects, according to the Water Environment Research Foundation. This influx of infrastructure work is projected to generate $524 billion in economic activity and create nearly 300,000 job opportunities across the country.”

A Positive First Step

Nonprofit organizations, labor unions, community colleges, and other groups working to develop the water workforce are eligible to receive money under the new program. Recipients, including rural and urban utilities who receive the grants from EPA, could use them in several ways, including training and collaboration initiatives as well as outreach efforts.

While the grant program will help these groups develop effective workforce programs, according to SFPUC’s Juliet Ellis and Megan Scott, WALA’s work is far from over. WALA partners are already preparing for the next budget cycle, hoping to secure $10 million in funding for the grant program.

“$1 million is very small,” Ellis said. “We would expect to see 5 to 10 projects funded in the first year.”

Ellis said she expects SFPUC will continue to lead the charge on advocacy in the coming years, securing funding for EPA to continue awarding Water Workforce Infrastructure and Utility Development Grants.

Another area of focus, Scott said, is research. She said there are a lot of opportunities to work in the water sector — and a lot of stigmas, too. SFPUC, in partnership with other associations, expects to have research available next month that will help the sector identify a path forward for recruiting.

Read more about America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 at the EPA website.

Mariah Walters Orose, WEF Highlights

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