How Utilities Can Ride the Wave of Operator Retirements

Despite impending workforce gap, there are steps to improve recruiting pool

How Utilities Can Ride the Wave of Operator Retirements

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Forty years ago, a surge of resources and new recruits flooded the treatment industry due to the Clean Water Act amendment. Now, that generation of operators is rapidly nearing retirement age, which will leave behind a major vacuum in the industry workforce.

To compound the problem, increased operator licensure requirements and a lack of active recruitment in past decades have put a stopper in the flow of new blood coming into the field.

Some utilities, like Lancaster Area Sewer Authority (LASA), are none too worried, however, due to the steps they’ve taken to secure new operators.

Working with educational institutions, providing expertise and resources, as well as a variety of advancement programs, have prepared them for the coming tide.

“There’s always that apprehension, you’ve just got to try to get somebody on board. Wastewater is a career, because once you get in here, you’re usually in the field for the majority of your working life,” says Edward Lyle, LASA operations chief. “We do a lot of outreach to the area, we do a lot of tours for local schools, we helped set up a degree program. You’re looking for a candidate that’s well-rounded, that’s able to kind of think on the fly.”

Avoiding a bind

After the unexpected passing of an operator and another three key employees nearing retirement eligibility, the 12-member team at LASA’s wastewater treatment facility has had to adopt a proactive recruitment philosophy.

An aging workforce and a languishing freshman class has long been an issue of the treatment industry, and on top of that, LASA requires that all of its employees be licensed for treatment plant operation.

“It takes a dedicated person to do it, a lot of times it’s happening in the middle of the night when you have breakdowns,” Lyle says. 

Despite these challenges, they have so far maintained employment levels and found promising recruits through proactive searching and by forging relationships with educational and training institutions.

“We go on a number of field trips to these plants, and when the students come back, their observations, they always come back with the enthusiasm of the operators, that they really like their work. They’ve been doing this for decades, and they’re still excited about their work, they want to talk about it. This just blows away these students, that anybody could be excited about their work having done it for so long.”

LASA recently acquired two new employees, and is currently looking to hire an intern in addition to the operator-in-training they already have on staff. A variety of lead-in positions like these make it easier to recruit from differing levels of training and experience.

“There’s a lot of people who want jobs, but not a lot of qualifications out there. Treatment plant facilities — you need a license to do that,” Lyle says.

Ensuring quality

One of the most challenging aspects of recruiting is the change in licensure requirements.

“When I first started, I started as a laborer and worked my way up into operations chief just by hard work and dedication,” Lyle says.

Today of course, treatment plant operators are required in most states to pass an examination as well as gain a certain amount of experience before they can become licensed.

“In the old days, people were brought on as laborers, or unskilled, and they might have learned on the job to be an operator,” says William McKeon, instructor at Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology. “I think the industry is demanding higher skill levels of operators.”

This is where programs like the water environment and technology associate degree at Thaddeus Stevens comes into play.

“The workforce has to be licensed, and programs such as this are teaching the students the skills, the knowledge, the abilities to fill that gap,” McKeon says. “In Pennsylvania, they will have already taken a lot of the licensing exams before they even get out. So they’ll have the licensing exams completed, and then all they need is experience.”

The operator-in-training at LASA is one such recruit, having already passed the examination through studying at a community college, and only needs a bit of experience before getting his license.

“Having spent a career in this industry, managing these facilities, and then having the opportunity to participate in the startup of this program, and having spent the last five years doing it, it’s a good opportunity for the students, and good for the industry,” McKeon says.

Developing relationships

A big reason that LASA isn’t worried about the future is that they have worked with institutions like Thaddeus Stevens, developing relationships over the years that yield qualified candidates.

“There’s not a formal relationship between us and the local utilities here, but we have working relationships. I’ll bring the students to the regional meetings, and it’s an opportunity for the students to meet people in the field,” McKeon says. “The professional community is very supportive of us. We go on a number of field trips to the local plants, whether water or wastewater treatment plants, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. They help us in the education of the students, and then they have a ready source of potential future employees.”

Representatives from LASA were part of an advisory committee in the early days of the water environment and technology program at Thaddeus Stevens. That effort not only benefitted their relationship with the school, but also ensured that the graduates coming out had the skills LASA needed in its operators.

“The program is designed to fill the void left by the aging workforce, people retiring, and to put in people who have the knowledge to replace them,” McKeon says.

Though it is a time investment for treatment plant staff — sending someone to work with a program like this — it’s minimal for the potential benefits it reaps.

“It’s not like we sat down and did the coursework for them and all that stuff,” Lyle says. “We’re trying to let them know what our needs are.”

Getting the message out

At its core, recruiting qualified employees is about communicating to potential recruits the benefits of the work. As important as having avenues to relay this information is sending the right message.

“I tell them it’s frontline environmental work. Some people talk, and some people do something about the quality of the environment,” McKeon says. “People in wastewater, they’re frontline environmental people. That’s their livelihood. On the drinking water side, it’s public health. It’s the potential to do good, or the potential to cause catastrophe amongst the entire community. Nobody touches the community like the water treatment plant operator.”

On what utilities and operators can do to encourage this mindset, McKeon advises, “Be focused on succession planning. Participate in some fashion in recruitment. The aging workforce came in as a wave, and it’s going to go out as a wave.”



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