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Can We Solve the Impending Water-Wastewater Labor Crisis?

On May 24, I had to take a flight through Atlanta to Nashville. I took a look at the airplane magazine and found a couple of articles I thought might be interesting. However, one surprised me in its impact.

As you probably know, there is concern in the water and wastewater industries that we are losing talent rapidly. I have also heard that some are concerned that this talent pool will be hard to replace. The fear is that the younger generations may want to pursue computer-based or more “glamorous” jobs.

The article that I read ("The Millennials," Sky Magazine, May 2010) relates to this and shows an interesting change in the new generations. The magazine refers to these people as the “Millennials.” They were born between the early 1980s and 2000. The main difference in the Millennials is what they expect from work. Personally, I think this is a good thing for water/wastewater.

The Millennials want to feel that they are making a difference to the world, and they want to feel like they are contributing something of value. They also like to be heard and they want to be innovators. Finally, they want to know that they are succeeding, and they want to express who they are through work. According to this article, the Millennials will accept a lower wage if these needs are fulfilled.

This is good news for our industry. After all, we can fulfill these needs. What we do results in very tangible impacts on our environment and the literal health and wellbeing of our community. If you don’t feel like you are making a difference in water and wastewater, there are few jobs that will give you this. Also, it can be proven ─ not only by the anecdotal statistics but by examining operational data that goes to the state.

It is also my opinion that the energy fluctuations, the issue of global warming, and the recent environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will drive home the importance of our environment to this generation. Because one of their needs is to express themselves through work, they will want to express this environmental consciousness. Thus, water and wastewater wins again.

As for the innovation needs of the Millennials, this field is ripe with challenges, begging for innovation. If you don’t believe this, look at the tightening regulations, aging infrastructure, and ever-tightening budgets.

For every generation, there are those who make it to the top of the socioeconomic ladder. For this generation, the top spots belong to Katy Perry, Saun White, Michael Phelps, Luke Russert, Princes William and Harry, and others who will arrive. For every one that hits the top, many, many more either don’t want this level of notoriety or lack the opportunities to reach this level. However, that is not to say that these individuals won’t feel the pull and needs of their generation. Quite the contrary. Let’s face it; we can’t all do what Brad Pitt is doing for New Orleans, no matter what our desire. This is where we shine. Our field is everywhere, and it employs all kinds of people from the socioeconomic strata. Thus, we can satisfy a Millennials’ generational desires, no matter what their circumstances or physical location.

Finally, this article indicates that the Millennials will probably be a larger generation than the Baby Boomers. Thus, the challenge is not the lack of talent, but our ability to spin the story to attract this generation. To me, we have a great story. Now we have to sell it.

Posted by Grant Van Hemert, P.E., Schneider Electric Water Wastewater Competency Center on Jun 01, 2010