How to Resolve the Gray Hair Operator Syndrome

Across the country, our water and wastewater utilities are aging. The EPA estimates that we need to invest more than $650 billion over the next twenty years to sufficiently improve our nation’s ancient water infrastructure. However, infrastructure is not the only aging asset utilities are worrying about. Forecasts show that water and wastewater utilities need to prepare for an oncoming wave of retirement that could result in a loss of essential applied knowledge. 

In the Northeast, the average age of a wastewater operator is 49.6 years old and according to the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation (WERF), the average retirement age for utility workers is 56. While the Northeast may have, on average, the oldest plant managers in the country, this is not just a regional problem. In an earlier blog post, I outline several key factors that indicate whether or not a utility will be affected by this oncoming wave of retirements. This is an issue most utilities need to worry about. 

There is still time, and utilities have options to prepare for their upcoming staffing deficit. In a recent WEF webinar, I explained why this retirement problem exists and what utilities can do to prepare themselves for the future. Five steps utilities can take to develop a sustainable and qualified workforce follow. 

Five steps to resolve staffing issues: 

Step 1: Evaluate staffing needs & technology options
The bottom line is that utilities need to be more efficient, even while there are more demands for their services than ever before. This means less focus on manual processes and more energy on optimizing staff and resources. It is important to understand your state’s regulations on staffing, but there are ways you can work with your regulators to reduce your staffing requirements. Technology such as GIS and SCADA can help capture knowledge, improve data management and engage your workforce.

For example, Woodard & Curran worked with a small utility that was having a hard time finding qualified staff. Investing $30,000 in SCADA system upgrades and repairs allowed them to reduce staff hours, enable remote operations, and in the end, save over $70,000 a year in staffing costs. Since the SCADA project completion, the utility has saved over $300,000, making their return on the project investment 10x to date.

Step 2: Develop an internship & mentoring program
College and high school graduate unemployment is still high and capitalizing on technical students can really pay off. Developing an internship program can help attract and engage young talent that might not otherwise be aware of opportunities at your utility. Interns tend to make engaged employees and should be seen as long term investments in your organization. On average, 90% of interns that get hired into permanent positions are retained after one year. In order to keep young professional happy and engaged at work, a formal mentoring program should also be put in place.

In order to attract new talent, a utility in Portland, Connecticut worked with their local high school to establish a year-long technical program for seniors that took students through all the basics of becoming a wastewater plant operator. At the end of the year, the students were invited to take the operator certification. After three years, the Town has graduated 14 certified operators, a majority of which still work in water treatment today.

Step 3: Target related fields as a resources
There are lot of skilled workers that can be an asset to your utility, but they may have no connection to the water and wastewater industry—yet. By targeting and recruiting people from closely related industries you can find many more technically-advanced employees. Electrician, mechanics and military veterans are great candidates as these groups of people tend to have the right technical skills to become certified staff. 

Step 4: Develop training programs to enhance staff skills
Getting employees in the door is one obstacle, but you also need a plan to retain younger employees and help them build careers at your plant. Although it may require additional investment, it is essential to encourage your staff to take certification exams and trainings and make sure you keep your employees informed about changes in industry standard, treatment technologies and regulatory changes. 

Step 5: Offer competitive wages
One of the reasons water and wastewater utilities are not attracting enough qualified employees is because their salaries are not keeping up with other utilities. In order to attract skilled workers, you need to make sure your wages are competitive with other utilities in your area. Look at salary benchmarking information and make sure you aren’t the lowest paying utility in your geography.

Succession planning may seem like just one more thing you have to add to the already long list, but at the end of the day, it is an investment in your employees by creating an environment where young talent can grow. While it is not necessarily a part of succession planning, outsourcing can present a solution to staffing issues by easing short-term and long-term pressures. Outsourcing can take many different shapes and sizes, from contracting out a superintendent or another high level position to outsourcing your entire operation. If you have any questions of succession planning or outsourcing at your utility, please contact me at   



Jay Sheehan Business Development Leader Operations & Management

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