Water Workforce Report Highlights Need to Invest and for ‘Up-Skilling’

As we build California’s water utilities of the future, one of the most common issues raised is workforce readiness. Where will all of those highly-skilled and experienced water professionals come from?  Particularly since 30-50% of the current workforce is in the process of retiring.

To better understand the workforce skills gap, the Water Research Foundation and the Water Services Association of Australia hired KPMG to compile a report. The 60 page report was released in December 2017.

Drilling down into the survey’s results, we found water executives in America are most concerned with a future skills gap in critical thinking (15% of those surveyed ranked it as their top concern); followed by concern about leadership skills (13%) and communication skills (11%).  The survey covered 36 American water utilities, with 10 of them in California.

KPMG sounded a note of caution in their report,

“In this time of unprecedented change, it is difficult yet  important to understand the impacts on the workforce and the skills required in the workforce of the future. If unaddressed, the water sector may be left with significant skill gaps. It may be unable to support clean and safe water and waste water services at affordable prices.”

The report predicts that customer exceptions of water utilities will transform over time. “The water sector is transforming from engineering and asset centric to a more technology-enabled customer focus,” the report notes. Customers will expect more for less and there will be tremendous demand on the water workforce to deliver.

General Managers/Executives Meeting at AC18

During CWEA’s Annual Conference in Sacramento, Jeff Tucker, CFO for NapaSan and Elizabeth Allan, CWEA’s Executive Director, facilitated a water leaders lunch time discussion about the report. They asked the group to individually rank what they feel are critical skills gaps. Of the 30 executive leaders, the top gaps identified are:

  1. Technical Skills
  2. Problem solving
  3. Leadership
  4. Communication
  5. Critical Thinking

Listing the top gap as missing technical skills highlights the unique California workforce problem – we are beginning to feel the pain from a shortage of experienced workers. The most fundamental requirement for agencies are trained and certified applicants. Many agencies are reporting it’s increasingly difficult to find people with experience.

Executive Director Allan provided highlights from the report during the meeting. The report not only highlighted near term concerns about a skills gap, but also highlighted longer term concerns that over the next 6-20 year agencies will be unable to deliver on their long-term business objectives as the skills gap worsens.

How to Go About Up-skilling

With the skills gaps identified, now what? The report highlights several initiatives  agencies are already implementing to reduce the gaps.

By far the most popular was “up-skilling” with 33% of US agencies reporting that was their top priority. Upskilling must be an Australian term as we’ve not seen it before. Up-skilling is what we could employee profession development.

Top initiatives to address potential skill/capability gaps? (US survey responses only)

  1. Up-skilling/professional development 33%
  2. Recruitment 20%
  3. Automation 15%
  4. Trialing employees in new roles 12%
  5. Supplementing workforce with contractors 9%

One of the most popular ways to resolve the skills gap mentioned in the report is for agencies to work with an outside partners. 70% of the agencies surveyed by KPMG say they are working with external partners to ensure new entrants are job ready.

The top external partner agencies are working with is a professional association (24% of agencies). This is followed by 18% of the agencies working with their local community colleges and 15% working with a local university.

The report underscores the importance of the relationship between agencies and the water sector associations. Strong partnerships could get even stronger as both agencies and the associations work to resolve skills gaps.

Recently, CWEA Board of Directors updated the association’s strategic plan and they prioritized the relationship with agencies and firms as a key strategy:

CWEA Strategic Goal C) Agenices and firms will value CWEA as an essential partner in achieving their missions through developing skilled professionals who are actively engaged in their profession.

“CWEA is finding new ways to listen and learn from agencies and the association is committed to ensuring our programs and projects will benefit California’s water workforce. Developing a highly skilled workforce will help agencies and ultimately helps the general public. Water agencies are able to reliably deliver clean water and ensure beaches and environment remain clean,” said Allan.

What’s next?

WRF and WSAA plan to continue monitoring the workforce skills gap, so we’ll report any new updates. Please be sure to leave a comment below about the workforce skills gap you are most concerned with and how you would go about resolving it?

Read the WRF/WSAA Workforce Report (pdf) >

About the Author

Alec Mackie

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