Operation Brain Drain: Workforce Issues At California Utilities by Water Online

Story posted in Water Online
By Artun Ereren

Every weekday morning at about 9:00 a.m., hopeful water professionals get the latest job posting from Brown and Caldwell, the go-to website for water industry job openings. By around lunchtime that same day, one maintenance worker position gets roughly 100 to 200 views. Before you could ponder about whether the job is the right one or not, that position is probably filled either within the agency or by an individual who has been counting the days for that same posting. Even though a career in the water industry may sound obscure to most, it is surprisingly difficult to get that foot in the door. Aside from the demand created by California’s historic drought, millennials are enticed by the idea that there will be a mass retirement of California water operators in the coming years. Yet many of my peers aren’t getting interviews or landing that job, despite acquiring all the necessary certifications. So what gives?

Word has been going around that water utilities will experience a “brain drain,” or a mass exodus of talent from the field, for quite some time; veterans say a mass retirement has been expected for “the last 20 years.” Operators that have been working 30-plus years are getting closer to retirement, so why is it still difficult to replace those positions? I spoke with Stephen McLean, the dean of Santiago Canyon College’s Water Utility Science program. McLean has nearly 40 years of experience in the water industry and has hired a couple hundred operators into the workforce. Simply put, I learned that this current generation doesn’t have the same mechanical acumen as the generation before. The crucial ability to sense when motors are operating properly is developed over years and years of experience. That mechanical sixth sense is something that you can’t teach a young adult overnight.

“When the state of California started making operator certifications as mandatory requirements for maintenance positions, that’s when water operations as a whole moved from being mechanical to mostly technical” McLean adds. The difference between mechanical and technical is virtually night and day. Mechanical is, of course, the hands-on labor, whereas the technical counterpart is based mostly on regulation and protocol set by the state of California. The reason for a shift into more technical requirements could mean the state and water agencies are trying to keep up with growing technological trends — which brought McLean to another dilemma. “The automation of today’s entry level jobs has hindered soft-skill growth. Effective communication and basic telephone etiquette are both very important for a career in water operations.”

While most of California’s water demands lie in the south, the same issues in employment also arise in the north. David Kehn works at the City of Santa Cruz as an engineering technician and agrees with everything that McLean mentions about the lack of mechanical experience and absence of soft skills in today’s job-seekers. Kehn says it is also important to acknowledge that the needs and demands of each agency are different. “Each department knows how long it takes to really understand their system and should plan accordingly for succession hiring. Communicating the importance of the new employee to them is important as well; however, putting unrealistic expectations on someone new can backfire and result in that person feeling overwhelmed.”

So how can we prepare for an imminent “brain drain”? The solution may lie in our public school system. A generation ago, taking a metal shop or autobody class was fairly common. Learning how to build a car or how to weld taught valuable mechanical skills to those who have never had prior experience. Valuable trade-skilled labor is on the rebound among European youth. For example, Germans are straying away from acquiring the usual diploma in science or economics and instead becoming skilled in trades. The same phenomenon must also happen in the United States. Of the many issues raised by the water crisis in Flint, MI, investment in capable and responsible operators is one of them.

In the meantime, I urge my fellow aqua men and women to be patient. If California’s historic drought taught us anything, it is that the industry must adapt to both internal and external forces. Governor Brown’s emergency conservation mandate has forced many agencies to create conservation departments almost out of thin air. Looking into more conservation-focused jobs could be where current applicants with the technical qualifications can start.

Artun Ereren is a firm believer of history’s role in science and vice versa. During his time at Cal State Fullerton, Artun researched topics ranging from water use in the Caucasus to present-day struggles in the education system. Blending his passion for water with his experience as an activist for education reform, Artun is now a Water Conservation Representative at Yorba Linda Water District.

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Megan Barillo

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