By Dave Kuzy, President and CEO of Carus Group
Each day, billions of gallons of water flow in and out of American homes and businesses, allowing us to cook, clean, bathe, turn up the heat, swim, grow crops, manufacture goods, and provide services.
This is possible thanks to nearly 120,000 water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators employed in the United States. Their work requires collaboration with the communities they serve, government agencies, companies within their supply chain, and the educators who help prepare future generations of water treatment professionals.
As we take time to “Imagine a Day Without Water,” it becomes clear that this collaboration must grow until it includes everyone who is impacted by our water infrastructure and the challenges it faces. Our water industry partners tell us that one of their biggest challenges is maintaining a strong talent pipeline.
Careers in the water treatment field provide competitive wages and opportunities for advancement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the median income for water and wastewater operators was $46,150 in 2017, and many operators begin their career straight out of high school. But plant superintendents tell us they aren’t attracting the talent needed to fill vacancies left by retiring baby boomers. During a recent conversation with Carus, a municipal plant superintendent illustrated the dilemma. “These are very good jobs. With benefits and some overtime, they’re probably making $80,000 a year without a college degree, and I can’t get anyone to apply.” The most recent opening at his facility, a Chief Operator position, only attracted one applicant in the first month it was posted. BLS estimates that each year about 8 percent of existing water operator positions need to be filled.
Like many others at municipal water systems, this superintendent turns to educational outreach, such as student tours, to get young people interested. “We tell them that working here, straight out of high school, you can start out making close to $30 an hour. Their eyes light up. That’s entry level.” Still, industry leaders worry about the future. In a report released this year, the United States Government Accountability Office recommended the EPA begin collecting workforce planning data that can be used to understand the impact a shrinking workforce could have on safety.
Water operators spend their days testing water samples to ensure public safety, maintaining equipment and lines to avoid breaks or contamination issues, and inspecting, flushing, and fixing fire hydrants. These routine tasks, invisible to most people, keep our communities safe.
So what can we all do to help narrow the skills gap? Awareness is the first step. We need to recognize and appreciate the value of clean water and the people and systems that provide it. As a society, we need to shine a light on these vital careers.
As a manufacturer operating in the United States, Carus faces similar recruiting challenges. Part of our answer has also been educational outreach, providing opportunities for young people to learn about careers available to them and building the foundation for early, reality-based career planning. Our most successful programs put us in direct contact with parents and teachers, the most influential people in most young lives.
Kids must be made aware of, and excited about, the impact they can have in the highly technical, widely accessible, high-paying field of water treatment. For this to happen, we all need to “Imagine a Day Without Water” 365 days a year.