Contact: Sandra Fallon, National Environmental Services Center
Phone: (304) 293-4191 x5582; E-mail:

Article/References Word Count: 1,199
Article Release Date: September 2009


Are You Prepared to Handle Labor Shortages in Your Water Utilities?
By Sandra Fallon and Mark Kemp, National Environmental Services Center

By now, we've all heard about the droves of baby boomers getting ready to retire. It's an issue that will affect all workplaces to one degree or another, and it looks to be particularly severe for water and wastewater utilities. Nationwide, almost half of these workers will be eligible to retire within the next 10 years. It's an issue that most public officials and utilities haven't considered adequately and aren't prepared to handle.

While water and wastewater utilities will lose both operators and engineers, operators represent the most urgent staffing need and are the focus of this article. These workers are trained professionals with an enormous amount of responsibility for safeguarding the public health and the environment. We depend on them to provide clean, safe drinking water to our communities and treat our wastewater so that it can be safely released back into local waterways. Their efforts ensure that we have the amount of water we need, when we need it, nonstop around-the-clock. The pending wave of retiring operators poses two central challenges for utilities and those who oversee these community services: (1) how do we replace the workers who will leave over the next several years and (2) how do we capture the knowledge and experience that these people have? Our response to this situation will have long-standing implications for utilities and communities, large and small.

Two key reports—Workforce Planning for Water Utilities—Successful Recruiting, Training, and Retaining of Operators and Engineers, and Succession Planning for a Vital Workforce in the Information Age—examine water and wastewater utility workforce issues andoffer practical and encouraging recommendations for addressing the pending crisis. Some highlights of the recommendations are below.

Actively Recruit Operators from Traditional and New Pools of Applicants
Utilities must actively recruit operators from traditional sources, such as high schools and community colleges, as well as from new, untapped labor pools such as older workers, displaced workers, and military veterans. Although some of the most effective recruiting strategies for operators continue to be employee referrals, Internet job sites, and newspapers, active and effective recruiting goes beyond these approaches. It requires reaching out and fostering better relationships with these labor pools, in other words, developing a competitive edge in attracting these workers. Utilities can, for example:

Improve Employee Retention
Making sure your operators are engaged and committed to your organization increases the likelihood that they'll stay and reduces the need for recruiting. To improve retention:

Capture Tacit Knowledge
When operators leave or retire, they take with them years of experience, information, and lessons learned about running your utility. Capture that tacit knowledge in any way you can—either through formal knowledge management processes, or by documenting it, writing it down, and enlisting qualified experienced workers or retirees to train or mentor less experienced workers. Operators need to know about all plant processes and equipment, including operations, maintenance, emergency planning, working with the board or city council—the nuts and bolts of the system as well as its strength and weaknesses. Preventing this loss of institutional knowledge saves time and money, keeps operations running smoothly, and helps ease workforce transitions.

Promote a Positive Image of Your Utilities 
Raising awareness about your water utilities can help create name recognition and an understanding of the environmental significance of your work. Potentially it can result in employees seeking employment with you. Some of the many strategies include advertising on buses, billboards, and the Internet, participating in or sponsoring community events such as neighborhood or job fairs, collaborating with local groups or hosting your own public education seminars on water topics. Be sure to alert the local media about your positive community efforts.

Craft Small System Solutions
Small utilities often lack the personnel and resources to take on new projects such as those identified above. However, gaining support from local leaders and developing creative partnerships with nearby utilities to, for example, share employees, collaborate on workforce planning, or raise public awareness can help ensure success. Admittedly, the prospect of simultaneously getting new personnel on board and trying to capture the collected wisdom of those leaving is a daunting one. The demographic changes we face are complex and won't necessarily be remedied through quick, simple steps. Nevertheless, it's important to get started sooner than later. These efforts will ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of our utilities, a better experience for system personnel, and confidence that we won't compromise the quality of life or public health of our communities.

References and Resources
Workforce Planning for Water Utilities-Successful Recruiting, Training, and Retaining of Operators and Engineers (2008) (Catalog No. 91237). Identifies practical methods water utilities can implement to handle the upcoming labor crisis. Sponsored by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, now the Water Research Foundation (WRF), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Published by WRF. Available for purchase from:; WRF subscribers can order from 888-844-5082 or

Succession Planning for a Vital Workforce in the Information Age (2005) (Catalog No. 91090).
Provides guidance and information about the upcoming water utility workforce shortage, implementing workforce planning, and documenting tacit knowledge. Sponsored by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, now the Water Research Foundation (WRF), and the Water Environment Research Foundation.Published by WRF and American Water Works Association (AWWA). Available for purchase from AWWA at:;
WRF subscribers can order from 888-844-5082 or

Planning for a changing workforce before your employees are all gone (Summer 2005). In On Tap, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp. 18-23. National Environmental Services Center.


About the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center (NESC)
RCAP ( and its programs across the country offer water and wastewater training and assistance to small and rural communities, tribes, and water utilities. NESC (; (304) 293-4191) offers information, technical assistance via telephone, educational resources, and magazines and newsletters addressing water and wastewater issues for these same audiences.

Author Bios
Sandra Fallon is a training specialist with the National Environmental Services Center and has developed many educational resources addressing water issues for small community officials.

Mark Kemp is the National Environmental Services Center's communications manager and On Tap editor.