As Workforce Crisis Approaches, Baywork Finds Opportunity to Build New Pathways into the Profession

On Friday Sept 29th Baywork released their long awaited report on water workforce reliability before a gathering of 65 representatives from water utilities, associations and community colleges.

The Bay Area will need over 828 new water professionals in the next three years and there are not enough students in the training pipeline right now the study found. The survey of 43 water and wastewater utilities was conducted by Baywork and research partner Jewish Vocational Services of San Francisco (JVS). It was funded by a grant from the California Workforce Development Board.

The water sector faces severe workforce challenges in the coming years and the report reiterated the important role Baywork plays in bringing multi-sector stakeholders together to work on recruitment, training and placement. “The water industry seems to face difficulty in recruiting, training and retaining skilled employees, especially for small systems,” the report noted.

“Critical to workforce success is sharing what we learn and what we build with one another, across agencies. Baywork plays a key role in bringing us together,” said Elizabeth Toups, Project Manager from JVS, during the opening comments.

CWEA President Debi Lewis from Stantec urges members to get involved and help recruit the next generation. Use our new website CAWaterJobs.org as a resource.

“The Baywork report correlates the impending retirement crisis with an approaching crisis in workforce reliability making these key priorities for the profession and the state.  See how you can help,” Debi said.

Authors of the Baywork-JVS workforce report at the Sept. 29th launch event.

Workforce Survey

The survey found three mission critical jobs, which face challenging and immediate shortages: electricians, machinist/mechanics and instrument technicians. Utilities will need at least 828 new workers over the next three years in those categories. They are also among the most difficult to recruit for in the region, agencies told JVS.

The water sector is competing with other adjacent sectors for talent in those roles. High demand, quicker job offers from the private sector and higher wages outside the water profession means fewer workers are available to fill these jobs at water utilities. According to the survey, 92% of utilities are having difficulty hiring electricians and instrumentation techs. There is also difficulty recruiting heavy equipment operators as the construction sector continues to grow. It’s a career track not typically associated with our profession but a mission critical role agencies need to fill.

The easiest job categories to recruit for? Water and Wastewater Treatment Operators. None of the agencies surveyed lack in applicants for operator positions.  However, the report warns community colleges in the Bay Area are not graduating enough student operators. Retirements will push the need for water and wastewater operators up to an average 174 per year. Local colleges are currently graduating only about 40 operators per year.

Baywork calls the shortage “an approaching crisis in workforce reliability.” At the meeting, leaders from Baywork and JVS explained the shortage presents a unique opportunity to provide stable, high-paying jobs to local people who need them.

“The impending retirement crisis offers a rare opportunity that could help struggling job seekers acquire the training, experience and connections they need to access family-sustaining employment and stay in the Bay Area,” the report noted.

Baywork and JVS recommend four strategies to address the workforce shortage:

  1. Increase awareness of water careers
  2. Help students with foundational skills (math and communication skills)
  3. Increase the availability of classroom training
  4. Cover the living expenses of students so they’re earning while they’re learning

“There is a widespread lack of awareness of the industry and the trades,” the report noted. “This is limiting the pipeline of candidates entering training programs. We recommend expanding current programs for improving awareness among students, parents, teachers and counselors.”

Representatives at the Sept 29th Baywork-JVS event included employers, professional associations and community colleges.

Mission Critical Trades

The findings by Baywork and JVS are alarming. The current number of open vacancies for instrumentation techs is 21% across the 43 agencies surveyed. One-in-five water tech jobs in the Bay Area are unfilled. In addition, over the next 3 years 50% of technicians will retire. In today’s highly automated water systems technicians play a mission critical role in keeping systems running. The report emphasized water agencies should act now.

Attendees at the Sept. 29th roll-out meeting discussed the four strategies in smaller round tables.  One theme that cut across all four strategies is the need for water utilities to establish training programs to help workers build knowledge and skills from scratch. Internships, apprenticeships and clear career paths were emphasized as key steps to resolving the workforce shortage.

Attendees from East Bay MUD and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission mentioned during the meeting they are starting apprenticeship programs for electricians to ensure they have enough people for their workforce needs.

The survey also highlighted a large gap in workforce recruitment – out of the 2,276 mission critical water jobs in the Bay Area only 9% are entry level. Water agencies prefer to hire people with experience – known as a journey-level employee. However, people interested in the profession have nowhere to build their years of experience. Students are finding there’s a gap they cannot bridge. They need experience but have nowhere to gain it.

For in-demand careers such as technicians the researchers could not find a single apprenticeship program at a water utility, and across all 43 agencies found only 8 budgeted positions for entry-level techs.

“Agencies should increase entry-level job opportunities by developing more apprenticeship, intern and trainee positions,” the report noted.

There is also a disconnect between training programs for electricians and instrument techs and the water sector’s available postings. For example, most training and apprenticeship activity for electricians is carried out by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); however, utilities don’t have any apprenticeship openings for electricians. Utilities prefer to hire experienced, journey level electricians. Since most new electricians are finding opportunity in other sectors, water utilities may need to open their own apprenticeship programs to create a future pipeline of electricians.

In addition, the report found agencies need to do a better job of onboarding new employees by creating “mentorship and job shadowing” programs to ensure new employees have a structured program for learning the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed.

The Opportunity to Provide Stable Employment             

During the September meeting and round-table discussions many attendees pointed to the opportunity to recruit and train a new, diverse water workforce. Several presenters and attendees emphasized many of the job opportunities should go to people from local communities who need them. In many cases some communities have not previously had access to these high-paying and stable jobs. As JVS noted, water careers are “family-sustaining.”

They found journey-level careers in water are stable, well paid and come with good benefits. Electricians and instrumentation techs can expect to earn $79-$96,000/year, which is a slightly higher average than operator positions.

One of the case studies highlighted was the SFPUC’s partnership with John O’Connell High School in Downtown San Francisco. The utility and high school work together on a Construction and Environmental Technology career program that can lead to jobs at the utility.

“The [John O’Connell] program offers relevant courses, internships at local agencies, linkages to community colleges and critical job readiness support from JVS,” the case study noted.

Helping high school students discover the great opportunities available in the water sector and laying out a clear career path were seen as critical to solving the workforce crisis. Furthermore, supporting them with a living wage while they learn is important to helping people who struggle to get into a career.

“Agencies need to offer more grants and scholarships for students pursuing trades training,” presenters said. “Pre-apprenticeship programs can also increase the quality and quantity of apprentice candidates.”

Workforce experts from JVS also noted it is important for someone to be there each step of the way assisting young, new applicants through the utility employment process. It can be daunting. They’ll need help applying to schools and help getting ready for the employment process. They’ll need skills in writing resumes and interviewing and may need help preparing for complicated civil service exams.

What CWEA is Doing

In 2016 CWEA, the California-Nevada section of AWWA and Baywork started a new water careers website called CAWaterJobs.org. The site provides basic information on the 9 mission critical career paths, salary information, career interviews and certification information. It’s open and promoted to the public.

CWEA and our partners are continuing to expand the public outreach and we encourage you to let a hard-working and passionate young person know water is a fantastic career. Let them know about your career path and what you like about the profession. Encourage young people to work for water and send them to CAWaterJobs.org and post your love for the water profession on social media using the hash-tag #workforwater.

Have ideas for recruiting the next generation of water pros?  Leave your ideas in the comments below…

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About the Author

Alec Mackie

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4 comments on “As Workforce Crisis Approaches, Baywork Finds Opportunity to Build New Pathways into the Profession

  1. Evan Klein-Corman says:

    I really appreciated what this article said about making the internship and apprenticeship great again. Gone are the days when such opportunities were abundant, and seemed the gold standard when considering where to enter the workforce. As a current applicant for a wastewater plant operator trainee position, I knew what volume of competition I was up against (a ton) when submitting my app. Yet it seems the demand for employees in skilled trade positions has not been met. When looking at my job options, it seems that it will either take several years of more education (I already have a degree) or several of on the job experience (which I cannot get if I have none going in). Honestly, I am convicted that if our districts invest in training the right people, given well-designed candidate screening methods, I believe the return on investment would be unprecedented. I know I will be beyond excited and grateful when I land the trainee position, given it is such a rare opportunity, and I know many other men and women out there who would be stoked to get trained, work hard, and invest themselves in a real career. Maybe there is an opportunity to introduce more employment justice by closing the employment gap a little bit. Specifically, I mean move further away from the dichotomy of low-pay service jobs vs high-pay jobs inaccessible by those without a college degree or years of experience in a skilled trade. Hope this has helped a little!

    1. Alec Mackie says:

      Evan – thank you for your input. Appreciate your ideas and how well you’ve written them out. You’ve got the writing skills to be a great operator. Keep up your search, keep networking, it will happen. Perseverance, patience pays off. There are thousands of California water job opportunities available each year. Keep an eye on our job board https://jobs.cwea.org. Good luck!

  2. John Kallo says:

    As Adjunct Instructor in the Water Utility program and Electrical Maintenance program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC), I am reaching out to you to inform you about our Electrical Program at LATTC.

    In all efforts to fill vital roles in the Wastewater, Treatment and Distribution positions, many organizations have internships to give students hands on training opportunities. In addition to these trainee positions, I think it would be a great idea if water utility agencies would start their very own Instrumentation and Electrical trainee positions.

    My understating is that Metropolitan Water District conducted a similar survey several years back and found it beneficial to form their very own Electrical and Mechanical Apprenticeship program to coach, mentor and produce excellent technicians to maintain their electrical and mechanical assets.

    Many of our Water Supply Technology students have have been hired with Golden State Water, California Water Service Group and many of Metropolitan’s member agencies such as the City of Long Beach and City of Torrence for example. LATTC is proud to say that in addition graduates from our water program, we have several graduates from our Electrical program who have been recruited now work at Metropolitan Water District as Electrical and Mechanical Apprentices.

    We are working very closely with several other water agencies throughout the state of Californian to see if we can partner up and form Electrical and Instrumentation Apprenticeships or Trainee positions. I am reaching out to you to inform you about our electrical program at LATTC to see if anyone would like to inquire our students. I can be contacted at kallojs@lattc.edu.

  3. Bradley White says:

    I strongly encourage all agency to recruit from prior military. All training offered needs to be approved by the VA so vets can get help with the cost of training. LATTC is a great school that supports veterans and is offering many classes in supply and wastewater treatment. I believe that many veterans are not aware of the growing opportunities that the water industry has to offer and I encourage agencies to actively recruit military women and men.

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