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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Tools and Resources for Workforce Planning

Tools and Resources for Workforce Planning

Workforce planning is an essential step in any small system’s asset management plan. Just as your utility cannot run without functioning infrastructure, services will not continue in the absence of a talented, knowledgeable operator. Without developing and facilitating workforce development plans, you risk the short and long-term security of your system and your customer's health.

That being said, workforce planning can often seem overwhelming. Many rural systems rely on just a few people to take on the many positions that keep a system running. If those employees left, much of their system knowledge would be lost with no one capable to take over. Yet the struggle to find and retain talent for small systems won’t get any easier without action.

In this blog post, we’ll review helpful resources for small systems in succession planning, knowledge transfer, employee hiring and retention, and talent attraction.

Succession planning can become considerably less overwhelming when you invest a small amount of time each day to increase your knowledge of workforce development. This three page fact sheet by the Water Research Foundation summarizes the resources needed for a succession plan. To actually develop your own plan, this one hour webinar by the Environmental Finance Center covers how to write and implement a plan by evaluating your utility’s workforce condition, identifying critical positions, understanding employee life cycles, and facilitating leadership development plans.

An important step identified in any succession plan involves implementing knowledge management techniques to retain critical employee institutional knowledge. An article from Kansas Rural Water Association’s The Kansas Life Line describes how employees can make small changes to their day to create digital workflow records that can be easily found by future employees. The EPA has also developed a knowledge retention tool operators can use to consolidate utility information onto one document.

Among the challenges associated with discovering new talent, managers must also learn better practices for recruiting and retaining new employees. The Environmental Finance Center has written a useful blog that describes how to hire utility staff through online job networks and how to retain those employees through performance evaluations. For a more in-depth resource on talent recruitment and retention, the AWWA Research Foundation partnered with the EPA to publish research findings on operator and engineer recruitment strategies. Chapter five lists the strategies developed from their research. For a video geared more toward small systems, check out the Environmental Finance Center’s one hour webinar on recruiting new staff.

To recruit and retain employees, managers will have to understand generational differences. While these differences can seem daunting, an Environmental Finance Center blog points out that many other generations in their twenties were labeled with a similar stigma. The article debunks many misconceptions about millennials.

When it comes to any age group, utilities find that a lack of awareness about the profession makes hiring new talent in the water sector difficult. Though many states, local governments, colleges, and water organizations are working to draw interest to this career path, small water utilities can also participate.

The Work in Water program at Wichita State teaches utilities how to engage schools and develop internships while offering mini-grants to cover program costs. If you’re interested in developing your own internship program, you can also check out the internship guidebook developed by Baywork for their own program. In addition utilities can work with their local Rural Water Association’s apprenticeship program to take on apprentices. Military veterans are another group utilities can recruit since they already possess a series of practical professional skills. The American Water Works Association has created a 12 page guide that provides veteran recruiting tips

Every workforce development plan is unique. With these resources, it's left up to you and your facility to determine what methods will best achieve the goals set for your community.

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Succession planning in the water industry has led to a growing demand for new operators. In addition to job security, the career path offers great benefits and opportunities to develop professionally while directly improving local communities. 

In this 10 minute interview by California Water Jobs, a successful operator describes the plans he accomplished to become an operations technician foreman for the Desert Water Agency. Before his career in water, Emmanuel Sarpong worked as a Field Radio Operator for the U.S. Marine Corps. He notes that his experience in the military gave him the discipline, communication skills, and problem solving abilities essential for utility operations and maintenance. A workday for Emmanuel is always changing, whether he’s putting treatment filters back on line, collecting water samples, or even pushing a broom for an upcoming tour.

To become an operator, Emmanuel began employment with a water utility as a general worker in construction. During this time he took correspondence courses with the state of California to obtain the certification that would allow him to advance into operations. He discusses his mentor Tom, an experienced foreman who trusted him to tackle projects that trained him in the skills he uses everyday. Emmanuel’s advice to operators is to keep pushing for higher levels of certification. 

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs
It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example, Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.


Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still attending high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems
USEPA has released two new/updated interactive tools to help small systems retain and organize important operator knowledge as well as keep track of regular operation and maintenance tasks. In this way, when an operator takes a vacation, retires, or leaves a system, important knowledge about the system is preserved for those taking his or her place. 

The first tool to be released is an updated version of EPA's popular Preventive Maintenance Card File tool. This 857-page easy-to-access electronic version can be tailored to a system's needs. It includes fillable pdf logs for each month as well as logs for common daily, weekly and monthly tasks. In addition, it can provide detailed information about maintenance and operation, source water, emergencies, security, treatment processes, monitoring/sampling, storage, distribution, rules/regulations, operator certification, customer complaints, technology, supplies, important people and more.

The tool can be downloaded in its entirety as a zip file, or you can download individual months/files. If your system prefers a printed format, the logs can be printed out or you can opt to print out the original 2004 Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems here.

The second new tool, piloted last summer, is the Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet for Small Water Systems, found here. This tool also captures site-specific information to help systems maintain water quality in times of transition, but in a spreadsheet format. Tabs providing information on source water, technology, certification, neighboring utilities, suppliers, distribution info and more provide critical information in a quick and easy to read format, all in one place. The spreadsheet also includes a daily production well log, conversion tables and flushing/backflow/valve-exercising schedules.


In a recent webinar featuring these resources, Melinda Norris from Idaho Rural Water talked about how she has seen utility records written on walls and left on dusty barn shelves, creating situations where years of knowledge are at risk of being lost. For her, theses new tools will increase access and encourage operators to record and preserve critical information for newly hired operators or just for those needing help on a daily basis. 

These tools were developed by the EPA's Workforce Group to address an identified critical area of need for small systems: preventing the loss of years of accumulated system knowledge when an operator retires or leaves a system.