Brain Drain

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Anyone in the municipal sector’s wastewater industry knows that as the rank and file reach retirement age, we need to work hard to recruit new people to manage and operate our treatment facilities.

Even with a slow economy and tight job market, certain trades are suffering from the next generation’s lack of interest and skills.  My company’s affiliation with the plumbing trade makes me aware that the trades are suffering from the same lack of “new blood.”  It’s even more dire in the wastewater field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

NOTE: Data in this table are rounded. See the discussion of the employment projections table in the Handbook introductory chapter on Occupational Information Included in the Handbook

 A growing population and the increasingly suburban geography of the United States are expected to boost demand for water and wastewater-treatment services. There’s a conundrum for hiring employers.  Recruits need strong math and science backgrounds and will require certification or licensing. That requires experience, but candidates with both don’t exist or have better opportunities.  So what’s the solution?

Internships are a start. Wisconsin created an intern program, literally “growing their own” with the skills needed to operate a treatment plant. Funded by a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the effort is aimed to help ensure wastewater treatment plants are operated by “knowledgeable and competent individuals” according to Susan Sylvester, Director of the WI DNR’s Water Quality Division.[1] And over in Ft. Worth, Texas, the Village Creek Water Reclamation Facility started an internship program (Treatment Plant Operator, September 2011) to help address its retiring workforce.[2]

The reasons for so little interest in sewage treatment? It isn’t glamorous, and the rewards of keeping the public safe from disease and protecting the environment from pollution may not be enough to compensate for the modest compensation. Perhaps rebranding our treatment plants as resource recovery plants is a start.  Sustainability is a buzz word these days and the idealism of youth can be cultivated to view wastewater treatment as a way to make a difference.  Clean water, dwindling reserves of phosphorus, renewable energy generation and mitigation of contaminants might be viewed as challenges for the next generation to tackle.  What are your ideas to help replace our aging corps of operators?

[2] Pete Litterski. September 2011.”Talent for the Future.” Treatment Plant Operator. P. 20-21.


6 Replies to “Brain Drain

  • Steve Pearse on said:

    How do you make the industry appealing to young people? seeing that it is a industry which ensures the health of our population.

    Name changes and buzz word help though changing the opinion of the person in the street through demonstrating the value and importance I believe is the key. That way it becomes a industry viewed in a positive manner.

    • Michael Keleman on said:

      Good point Steve. Words like sustainability and resource recovery are a start.EPA tried creating the word “biosolids” and yet many environmentalists still view biosolids as “sludge” and are quick to criticize the re-branding. Still, helping everyone to realize how important wastewater treatment is from a public health and environmental perspective is crucial.

  • Harold on said:

    It is likely that these facilities will start looking different in the near future, with changes in treatment objectives and operations.

    The shift to enhanced energy and nutrient recovery is underway, and even the distinction between treated wastewater and potable supply is blurred with the development of reliable advanced treatment technologies.

    Future wastewater systems will continue to evolve with innovations and technology developments, resulting in automation and user friendly operations. For example, we’ve already seen some municipal wastewater facilities that can be operated remotely with an iPad.

    • Michael Keleman on said:

      Using an iPad? Wow! I remember having to use a dial-up connection to use a SCADA system and it was kinda scary…slow. Also, certainly the younger generation should be excited about using apps to run WWTPs from phones, but security will be an issue.

      • Craig Martin on said:

        Enabling SCADA systems with IP connectivity through the internet is absolutely a security concern! Hackers are focusing their efforts on such systems, which if successful, could cause wide-reaching outages that affect thousands or more people who rely on water, power, natural gas, etc. Turn a few pumps off or close a few valves in the right locations and all of a sudden there’s a BIG waste problem, at both the treatment plant and at people’s homes!

        Last fall, a disgruntled employee at a water treatment facility in southern IL caused a water pump to burn out when he remotely accessed the SCADA system and enabled a routine that constantly cycled power to the pump on and off, until it eventually failed. He tried to make it appear to be an attack from a hacker in Russia by spoofing the IP address of Russian internet domain. He was caught, but the concept and techniques were proven! Without proper security monitoring, access, and enforcement protection in place, more hacks on industrial controls systems will become successful.

  • George Nakhla on said:

    I agree that qualified manpower shortages in the industry are real and given the really poor interest in the water and wastewater engineering that our young generation exhibits is indeed alarming. Education is key;the public must recognize the importance of the water and wastewater sector not only in protecting public health and the environment but also on the economy. ASCE has recently published a report idnicating that the widening gap between investment and need in the water and wastewater infrastructure, projected to reach $80 billion, by 2022, will cost the US some $700 billion dollars in lost economic output and anywhere between 700,000 and 1.4 million jobs. The public should be bombarded with these facts until they get it.The dwindling water resoruces worldwide create enormous opportunities for North American firms and may be the young generation can be lured by the overseas travel. People in North America have taken cheap water for granted for so long that diminshed the value of water; it is high time that water is priced properly, which despite the short term pain, will educate the public. While the emphasis on resource and energy recovery may turn our WWTPs to “factories” and “power plants”, I do not believe that this will excite the younger generation unless they realize the value of the commodity. Universities can play a role by enhancing interaction between students and engineers through internships, co-ops, industry design projects, but I believe the biggest change will have to come from public education. As we all wait for this slow change, perhaps we should encourage this gneration hooked up on making money the fastest way they could, to develop creative financing models to support water infrastructure projects.

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