With Waves of Operator Retirements Coming, It's Time to Talk to the Next Generation

Crises and problems involving water and wastewater have been in the news regularly. Is now the time to engage a bright young person to consider entering a water profession?

It’s said that one of a leader’s most important duties is to groom a successor. That’s important in the water professions, where a wave of retirements is coming, and soon.

Are you near retirement? If so, even if you’re not a leader by job title, would you like to help leave a legacy in the form of a bright young recruit to the industry? Well then, maybe now is a good time to give it a try.

Why now? Because the stars and planets seem aligned in ways that make it easier than usual to connect with young people about the importance and rewards of water careers.

Crisis means opportunity

Check the newspaper. There have been stories about lead contamination in drinking water, first in Flint, Michigan, and later in other cities around the country. There are stories about plastic microbeads in wastewater. Pharmaceuticals and other micropollutants in wastewater. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Dead zones in water bodies.

Young people are concerned about the environment. You’re well qualified to explain to them how you have made a difference, and how they can, too. The topic is incredibly timely.

What else is working in your favor? The specter of college debt. Increasingly, young people wonder: Is a college degree by definition worth the money invested? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it was years ago.

No one wants to discourage a bright young person from going to college if that’s what he or she wants. But some high school students are interested in alternatives that can still lead to good careers and prosperous futures. They might like to know that the water industry offers such careers and that the price of admission need not include a four-year degree.

They can get the training and education they need on the job through apprenticeship or at a community college. Either way, they can start their careers essentially debt-free. Once in the profession, opportunities to advance are substantial. Pay is competitive. More schooling is always an option. The jobs can’t be outsourced. Best of all, the work is challenging and without question serves a vital purpose.

Compelling case

Working in water may not be as (supposedly) glamorous as writing software code or building e-commerce websites or developing smartphone apps, or any number of other professions.

But there’s a strong case to be made for it. Making that case requires a personal touch. You’re just the kind of person to deliver it.

I’ve been around the industry long enough to know how committed and passionate water professionals are. Commitment and passion win converts. So many great people I meet in the industry never planned to be water or wastewater operators, but fell in love with the career once they entered it. Such professionals are in a perfect position to use what’s called the “feel, felt, found” argument in talking with young people.

For example, a young person might say, “I just don’t find that career very appealing.” To which the operator can respond, “You know, I can understand why you feel that way. I felt that way myself years ago. But when I got into the profession, here’s what I found …”

Making the connections

How can you get opportunities to talk up your career to young people? The ways are limited only by your imagination. Some obvious ones include staffing exhibits, fairs and festivals; guiding plant tours; and talking to middle school or high school classes on career days.

Some less obvious ones, which maybe take a bit more courage, include taking your son or daughter and some of their good friends on a visit to your plant. Or going on a radio program to talk about your plant’s achievements (and slipping in commentary about the rewards of water careers).

Or maybe volunteer as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout merit badge counselor for an area like sustainability, chemistry, environmental science or public health. Talk about a chance to engage personally with kids who have potential for water career interest.

Whichever approach you may choose, never underestimate the impact your enthusiasm for your work can have on young ears and young minds.

So how about it? If every operator, before retirement, took on the challenge of getting one young person to at least explore the possibilities of working in water, perhaps there would be a line at the figurative water and wastewater employment office. And maybe that coming wave of retirements, in terms of its impact on the industry, would end up feeling more like a ripple.


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