I recently had an opportunity to present with three other colleagues during the Smart One Water (SOW) Workforce Development Workshop hosted by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor and Director of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. I was honored to present and provided insight on the topic of Workforce Strategic Development. The topic was very fitting due to the numerous gaps with attracting a diverse and new generational workforce while retaining a diverse and mutigenerational workforce in the water sector. From my assessment after listening to several speakers who worked in the water utility sector, it was evident that a cultural mind shift with organizational leaders needed to happen before any issues could be addressed pertaining to much needed technological advancements and gaps in their talent pipeline. Strategic workforce planning and change management immediately came to mind. Thankfully, my presentation incorporated strategic workforce planning.
During my presentation, I listed several challenges with attracting a diverse and new generational workforce for the water sector. Underrepresentation of skilled technical talent and women, along with corporate culture were the culprits. A 2010 study revealed that women were disenchanted with pursuing engineering careers because they lacked exposure to the discipline and faced gender-related obstacles (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010). The researchers discovered that gender stereotypes prohibited women, especially women of color, from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations due to biases around math and science aptitude and “gender appropriate” positions for women. This flawed thinking still exists today in some corporate cultures and/or work environments. Therefore, strategic goals and objectives must be devised to eliminate underrepresentation, as well as close the gender gap.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Employment Projections Program identified three critical areas that would greatly impact and transform the water sector landscape: (1) separations; (2) growth; and (3) vacancies (Kane & Tomer, 2018). The BLS Employment Projections Program estimated that an alarming rate of 3 million workers will retire or transfer out of the water sector by 2026 vacating an average of 220,000 jobs annually. The program also identified a faster growth trend of 9.9% of water occupations compared to 7.4% of occupations nationally in 2026.
So, the burning question was how to overcome challenges to attract and retain a diverse, new generational, and multigenerational workforce. After doing some extensive research, I found and proposed a few noteworthy strategic initiatives: (1) awareness and access to underrepresented group(s); (2) partnerships; (3) innovative professional development trainings (automation and/or virtual); and (4) concentration on specific skill types. Creating awareness and providing access to underrepresented groups could be done by revamping job descriptions by transitioning from technical verbiage to more modern day language that highlights how engineers are improving the well-being of others; increasing awareness and access to STEM jobs in the water sector that align STEM education with interests of girls K-12 and collegiate/professional women; and creating high visibility opportunities of role models in STEM roles in the water sector. Building strong partnerships with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the Energy Department, Discovery Education, and the American Nuclear Society would aid in the water sector developing their own summer camps or youth programs. Creating professional development training opportunities that are futuristic such as automation or virtual trainings is critical to remain competitive moving forward into 2026.
I suggested that recruiting efforts should focus on critical job types needed within the next decade such as plumbers, construction laborers, and operating engineers. Hiring veterans is always promising. Due to the overwhelming number of retirees and future vacancies, organizational leaders and those in human resources should focus on strategic initiatives such as succession planning, employee engagement, career pathing, mentorship programs, apprenticeships and/or internships, cross-training, and rotational assignments. Some industries like oil and gas allow employees to provide a 2-year notice for retirement, which allows the organization to not only hire a replacement but provide an opportunity for the transfer of knowledge from the soon to be retiree to the new hire.
In my closing remarks, I reiterated that strategic workforce planning initiatives must take place to attract, retain, and mentally change the perception of the future of the water sector. Due to the new movement, K-University initiatives, recruiting, and retaining talent strategically along with a cultural mind shift for organizational leaders was a pivotal point. If these initiatives were implemented, K-University, underrepresented groups, water sector workers and leaders would be actively engaged, and the gaps would be filled.
I really enjoyed participating in the workshop and look forward to future opportunities.
Clark, D. (2019) Improving Utility Succession and Workforce Development Planning. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/awwa.1338
Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington DC: American Association of University Women.
Kane, J. & Tomer, A. (2018) Renewing The Water Workforce: Improving water infrastructure and creating a pipeline to opportunity. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/water-workforce/