SET Blog: Musings and Insights

Digital Transformation for an Aging Water Workforce

Published On - January 09, 2020

The workforce in the water industry is aging. More importantly, fewer young people are entering the industry to take over jobs, creating a pending human resource gap to compound the financial resource challenges that many water suppliers currently face. The numbers are substantial. A 2010 report by the Water Research Foundation and the American Water Works Association found that up to 50% of senior utility managers would be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years, leaving a dearth of experienced managers at the helm. This is occurring just as the needs for digital transformation to a smart utility, with a new set of technology and innovation challenges, takes hold.

In some ways, this lack of demand for water industry jobs is surprising. Water utilities are known for good pay, reasonable work hours, retirement pension plans, and long-term job security. It is common for individuals to spend their entire career at a single water utility, or at least to stay within the industry for many decades. Such industry and job longevity is unusual in the modern world, and the notion of a pension plan that will provide comfortable financial support throughout an extended retirement is increasingly unusual.

Given the relative advantages of a career in water, why are so few young people joining the industry, and what can we collectively do to address the challenges of human resource drain in the years ahead?

One of the primary reasons the water industry has had challenges attracting new talent is poor branding. Water is seen, at least by many millennials and other younger workers, as staid, boring, and unambitious. The industry has an image of jobs that include punching a clock as a municipal worker, performing the same redundant job for years, modest pay, and few options for career advancement. Compare this with a career in finance with the possibility of making millions of dollars, or positions at technology start-ups with cutting edge software, stock options, beer and kombucha taps, and Initial Public Offerings! Now that is sexy and inspiring.

Water utilities have done a poor job of telling a compelling story of the benefits of working in the industry as well as actively recruiting top level engineering and business management talent. For our industry to continue to thrive in the face of water supply variability, infrastructure degradation, water quality challenges, disengaged customers, and financial uncertainty, we need to change the way we market water.

"Water utilities have done a poor job of telling a compelling story of the benefits of working in the industry"

Since our industry has done such an admirable job of providing safe and reliable water services for decades or even centuries, people take water for granted. Most younger workers aren’t familiar with the fascinating challenges and new technologies that are available in a career in water. Anyone who has spent any time in the industry is aware of this, but even the term ‘water industry’ doesn’t begin to describe the depth and complexity of opportunities within the business. Water supply, wastewater, storm water, water quality, water loss, desalination, water recycling, groundwater management, water storage, and non-revenue water are just a few of the many areas of interest and need where talented youth can find fulfilling careers.

And it’s not just the depth of opportunity. The scope of new technologies flooding the industry is stunning: New water treatment technologies, data analytics, remote sensors, energy recovery, wireless control, system automation, cloud services, and leak detection is just the beginning. And the business challenges also offer fascinating and challenging opportunities: Utility consolidation, new business models, creative financing solutions, customer engagement, urban growth, financial resilience, and long-term strategic planning are just a few areas where young business talent can find stimulating opportunities.

Yet in spite of the fascinating opportunities in water and the need to better articulate the benefits to a new generation of workers, creating a new compelling narrative will take time. The jobs gap is likely to widen in the coming decade, and we will all have to find ways to address this very real challenge.

Fortunately, there are solutions to help. These solutions are actually embedded in the very opportunities which may serve to attract new talent to the industry: Digital technologies and automation.

"The solutions are actually embedded in the very opportunities which may serve to attract new talent to the industry."

The historic business case for Advanced Metering Infrastructure in water has largely been based on two primary benefits: Revenue recovery from improved meter readings and a reduction of apparent losses, and reduced costs from manual meter reading. We can now add an important third major component to the business case mix – improved operational efficiency from automation in the face of ongoing staff reductions.

As the new industry worker replacement rate doesn’t meet the pace of industry retirements, utilities will need to increasingly invest in automation to maintain or improve operations with fewer and fewer human resources. In many industries the displacement of human labor with technology or robotics has been seen as a threat. In water, the exact opposite may be the case. Technology is a big part of the solution to the problem of increasing labor constraints.

"Utilities will need to increasingly invest in automation to maintain or improve operations with fewer and fewer human resources."

It’s not just the promise of reduced meter reading expenses from AMI that will address the challenge. Remote sensors that deliver near real-time data to the utility have a host of other benefits. The ability to remotely identify system failures and proactively prioritize remediation to reduce costs and service disruptions helps suppliers manage operations more efficiently. Modern customer information technologies largely automate billing and payment collection, and self-service tools reduce the demands on limited customer service staff.

These technology improvements also have spillover effects. More engaged customers who have direct access to water consumption data and recommendations on how to manage their spend and protect their property from costly water damage results in increased political support for ongoing investments in infrastructure and additional technology.

Rather than lament the challenge of an aging workforce and a dearth of human resources, the industry should take this opportunity to both tell a new story about the opportunities in water, while simultaneously investing in new technologies. This will bring the promise of career fulfillment closer to reality and fill human resource gaps through artificial intelligence and automation. By finding the solution within the challenge we can create new opportunities and make the lives of utility managers easier and more fulfilling.

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