NYWEA decides it’s time to get serious about recognizing clean-water operators and attracting new talent
Industry leaders today are brainstorming the Utility of the Future. Suppose that utility takes shape but no one is there to operate it.
That can’t be allowed to happen, says Mike Garland, president of the New York Water Environment Association and director of environmental services with Monroe County, New York. Among his first acts on assuming the presidency earlier this year, Garland designated 2015 as NYWEA’s Year of the Operator.
The aim is to celebrate the contributions of operators working in the industry and explore ways to attract new talent to the profession – as many experienced operators retire in the coming years. A key initiative will be the creation of a task force to explore the need for new operators, along with the challenges and opportunities in attracting them.
A changed industry
Garland, a civil engineer (bachelor’s degree from Villanova University, masters from the University of Buffalo), has worked in water and wastewater for engineering consulting firms and in the public sector. He has dedicated his entire career to environmental work. In his current role, since 2008, he oversees a countywide wastewater utility. He also manages a solid waste and recycling operation, the county’s award-winning green fleet, and the engineering and construction group that builds county facilities.
He has been a NYWEA member for several years and rose through the officer ranks to the presidency. The idea for the Year of the Operator was born of his own and other utility executives’ awareness that the water professions need an infusion of people. In 2012, NYWEA developed a Succession Planning White Paper that identifies issues with the “graying of the profession.”
“We’re developing, designing and building the Utilities of the Future, but will we have the operators to run them?” he says. “As a utility director, I know firsthand the challenges of attracting and retaining licensed operators. There has been a wholesale change. We’re migrating from what we once called pollution control facilities to water resource recovery facilities. We’re harnessing energy and extracting commodities from our waste streams now. We have a real opportunity and a need to define what the Operator of the Future looks like.
“Going back more than 40 years to when the Clean Water Act was enacted, we saw across the country the wholesale upgrading of wastewater plants to meet new regulatory standards. A lot of people got into operations then. They found good jobs with good benefits and good retirement, and they matured with the industry.
“Recently we have seen, particularly in New York state, an exodus of experienced, knowledgeable operators. They got in at the same time because it was an attractive career, and they’re leaving around the same time because it makes financial sense for them – the time is right to take advantage of their hard-earned retirement benefits.
“With that exodus comes a gap. Wastewater operators today face demands much different than 40 years ago. They need to understand technology, energy, math, biology, chemistry. They really need to know how their plants work so they can make good decisions. We operate plants today with far fewer people, relying more on technology.”
Making it appeal
Meanwhile, the basic appeal of the profession is limited, Garland observes: The work is labor-intensive. Some people don’t find working around wastewater very appealing. The pay, quite frankly, based benchmarking we’ve done across our state, is not at a level that’s attractive, particularly for someone coming out of school with a four-year technical degree.
“To get past those challenges, it takes special people who understand the value of the work, who enjoy the sciences and the technology, yet aren’t afraid to get dirty and do what it takes to operate a facility in compliance with state and federal regulations.”
As Garland sees it, part of the answer is to create an environment where new operators have opportunities to learn, grow and attain higher levels of licensing, where they benefit from effective leadership, and where they can get engaged in innovative projects. “With so many people leaving the profession, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth,” he says.
Tackling the task
At present, Garland and the NYWEA board of directors are creating the Operator of the Future Task Force. Its members, a dozen or so, will include mainly plant operators but also most likely collection system operators, utility executives and regulators.
The task force’s first product will be a white paper laying out findings on how to attract people to water careers and what NYWEA members and the utilities that employ them can do to help.
Garland vows not to overlook those already in the profession: “Our core constituent is the operator. We need to do everything we can as an organization to support those operators in terms of training, education, scholarship opportunities and recognition.”