Beyond the ongoing challenges created by its aging infrastructure. America’s water industry is grappling with a serious crisis of workforce availability. In a 2020 report, the American Public Works Association (APWA) found that more than half of all water and wastewater utilities nationally have just one or two employees. Eighty-five percent have three or fewer.
Compounding matters is that the industry’s workers are skewing older. Only 10 percent of the water sector’s workforce in water occupation roles is aged 24 or younger, according to the APWA, while the media worker is 42.8.
As these older workers fade into retirement or switch careers, their expertise follows, leaving utilities – notable those that haven’t yet embraced digitalization – scrambling to deal with the erosion of the necessary knowledge about things like document systems, asset history, training protocols, maintenance procedures or the often-temperamental complexities of continuously aging assets.
Many underlying factors make replacing long-time employees complex. Fewer people generally are choosing to work for utilities out of perceptions that, despite the work’s importance, the career path is simply not enticing. Fewer working professionals are staying in one field for their entire career. And attracting candidates with diverse skillsets from an already limited pool increasingly involves a bidding war that utilities dealing with tight budgets struggle to win against larger counterparts able to offer more in wages and benefits. Often to compensate, utilities are outsourcing more of their functions.
All this comes against the backdrop of intensifying efforts to embrace digitalization, data analytics, artificial intelligence and, in some cases, advanced simulation technologies such as digital twins – a real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process, using historical and current data to help predict asset performance, provide better insights and generally help with overall data accessibility. While these new technologies have their own complexities, data-driven efforts boost efficiency and automate processes, ultimately providing the opportunity for more capacity from the available resources.
But the effectiveness of digital solutions hinges on the willingness of the water industry and its workers to embrace them, which can be tenuous. A survey of more than 300 water industry sector stakeholders for Black & Veatch’s 2022 Water Report found that half of water utilities have felt technological resistance from their staff, likely stemming from concerns that automation displaces people from their jobs and that machines simply can’t measure up to human decision-making, or from previous tedious or failed attempts at synchronizing new technologies with legacy issues.
Yet resolving – or at least easing – the dilemma of a dwindling workforce and the resulting loss of institutional knowledge can be found in digital solutions. Better knowledge management and training systems help ensure that new professionals have resources that can supplement knowledge gaps in an array of settings, from how best to react during a disruption to pinpointing if and why an asset isn’t running properly. They also make data and information more accessible for all workers both new and experienced, in addition to providing opportunities to gather more preventative action items rather than just reactive measures.
While this capability encroaches on the roles of human workers, staff likely have nothing to fear as utilities continue to rely mightily on decision-making by actual people. When asked whether they lean more on experienced technical staff to make sound decisions, or data and intelligence to drive responses and action, half of the survey’s respondents said they put their faith equality on both.
Moving forward, the water industry’s response to the disruptions of an aging workforce where potential recruits are in high demand and enjoy other employment options will rest on digitalization and data analytics. The question is whether system operators and management are willing to embrace the tools in a mutually beneficial manner.