Opinion

When Experience Retires

It's time to tackle the brain drain on all fronts

From a human capital standpoint, the state of the water and wastewater industry is not good. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly one-fifth (19.2 percent) of workers are within five to seven years of retirement.

This is more than a decrease in head count, it is a loss of know-how. The industry is at risk of losing crucial intellectual capital.

But there are some things the industry can do to try to tackle brain drain issues.

During the past decades, companies have proven that you can’t win the talent wars just by spending more. When it comes to finding and keeping employees, pay is secondary for top talent. But if a company builds up an outstanding reputation, people will line up to work at that organization. For the water and wastewater industry, this will involve a degree of investment in branding efforts and workplace changes that will appeal to the younger Generation Y.

One of the most important issues for reputation will be to promote a cause. The 2008 Adecco USA Workplace Insight survey found that 69 percent of Generation Y wanted the company they worked for to be more environmentally conscious. That demographic was even willing to sacrifice, on average, 6.2 percent of their salary to work for an environmentally friendly company—more than double the amount any other generation of workers would be willing to give up. An equally significant issue is the transfer of knowledge from the seasoned industry professionals to new employees. It is crucial that the mentoring relationships be managed properly so that both sides will feel comfortable and work together effectively.

The big question is how to get individuals who know technical operations, equipment, and field needs to share their "tribal knowledge." One way is to help them to understand how to mentor and coach the new hires. For example, companies can offer incentives that can supplement retirement incomes in exchange for coaching the newbies. A train-the-trainer program is an essential first step so they can properly transfer some of that valuable information. Because effective mentoring and cooperation is so crucial to the impending transfer of knowledge, personality assessments will be vital in matching the right workers to the right tasks and team members.

Using an in-depth work style and personality assessment during the hiring process and for current staff allows the employer to manage more effectively. This data can reduce the learning curve for the influx of new hires necessary in the water and wastewater industry.

Personality assessments also help in building mentoring partnerships and productive teams that run smoothly. By understanding how different members of the team work, managers can help guide them to appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, managers need to realize that attracting, retaining, and training employees are interconnected issues that must be considered in tandem. To alleviate this industry problem, action must be taken by the industry as a whole to change the way it is perceived. An advisory board on hiring and retention would help the water and wastewater industries share strategies and information that will stave off this personnel crisis.

What is not working is the poaching of talent. Ultimately, somebody is going to lose. We need to be creative working on the supply side of the issue, not the demand side. There is a need for a summit around this issue. There is a need for the water and wastewater industry organizations to convene and discuss local, regional, and national strategies.

The water and wastewater industry must stop merely grumbling over the dismal statistics and take decisive action. Now is the time to begin discussions on who should be on such a panel, what organizations should sponsor the effort, and how soon could the discussions begin.

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