If you believe, as we do, that water utilities will soon be (1) consolidating (2) driven by data (3) more customer centric and (4) pushed to innovate, then we need to discuss the water utility workforce of the future. First, we must realize scarcity is nationwide issue: 40 of the 50 states anticipate water scarcity in the next 10 years. While this is a time-critical issue, there is still a divide among utilities. The challenge of solving scarcity is further exacerbated by fragmentation, as any of the ~50,000 potable water utilities addressing scarcity are primarily concerned with optimizing their own access. This fragmentation extends across the industry as wastewater, storm water, and potable water lack a unifying mission and governance to enable holistic solutions.
As the world realizes scarcity is a critical global concern, future water utility leaders need to become societal leaders. Water utilities will have a public presence and sense of purpose akin to the early 20th century when our water infrastructure was emerging as the transformational investment in all communities across the country.
A recent Water Research Foundation report anticipates that water utilities will lose 30 to 50 percent of their workforce by 2025. Considering most retiring workers average 24 years at the same utility, the potential loss of institutional knowledge is concerning. We are in need of change, and should not be replacing “like” with “like”. Operator training will change, human resource management will change, and leadership will change. Let’s embrace these trends and attract the next generation of leaders to solve this generation’s issues.
Fortunately, college graduates are looking for what our industry has: a social purpose, a complex problem, data, and engaged customers. No doubt the water industry has always had a social purpose, but never with today’s public awareness. We have always solved complex problems…but never with as many external (climate, customer expectations, etc.) factors. The amount of data we have as a result of advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) is simply unparalleled, and frankly overwhelming to most utilities. Finally, as an industry, we have often complained that customers are unaware of our services…. well now thanks to climate change, Flint, and flooding – people are asking more from our industry leaders. To effectively manage the newfound public interest and demands, we need to attract the people who can carry our legacy forward by taking the following steps:
- Inform the education system to teach a more holistic approach, and provide new certifications
- Adopt the leading IoT technology to drive the necessary data
- Consolidate within and across water utility silos to leverage the best of each
- Enhance the customer engagement programs to regain trust
Today’s utility leaders need to understand the Internet of Things (IoT), advanced analytics, customer behaviors, and watershed changes. Although daunting, these issues are of great interest to today’s students. We see fantastic young leaders coming from our education system, prepared for fast-paced change and innovation. We as water utility leaders must attract this young talent if we want to maintain our great achievements of the past and drive them into the future.