With the water workforce shrinking, public-private partnerships put staffing in the hands of professionals
Recruiting, training, and retaining water utility employees has become increasingly difficult despite numerous job opportunities with relatively high pay and feasible educational requirements. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects the process to become even more difficult: About a third of the water workforce will be eligible to retire in the coming decade.
At the same time, water treatment systems have become more technically sophisticated, requiring highly skilled specialists to operate and maintain them. How can water utilities source talent during both a general labor shortage and a shortage of water professionals in particular?
Building the Water Workforce
The EPA maintains a list of fact sheets to help new water operators enter the water and wastewater industries. The sheets describe the experiences of successful operators on training and retaining water workers.
The agency also has announced the America’s Water Sector Workforce Initiative and the Innovative Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Program, which aim to connect prospective workers with career opportunities while broadening public awareness.
According to the EPA, an effective water utility workforce program needs planning that includes recruitment, retention, competency, and community partnerships. Successful programs have fostered inclusiveness, connected with communities and youth, collaborated with nonprofits and schools, and established summer job programs, internships, and apprenticeships.
In Sint Maarten, for example, Seven Seas and the Minister Omar Ottley have initiated what’s known as the Desalination Resource Development Program (DRDP). The fund will provide scholarships and internships for Sint Maarteners interested in water and related technical fields.
While such efforts have achieved success in a handful of cities, many communities do not have the financial and organizational resources to develop a water workforce, and it remains to be seen how effective the EPA programs will be. While there are 1.7 million water workers in the nation, most water and wastewater utilities have only one or two employees on staff. A full 85% of water and wastewater utilities employ three workers or fewer.
An alternate mode of infrastructure delivery has been gaining in popularity in recent years. With public-private partnerships (P3s), public utilities can take advantage of the expertise of specialized treatment companies. Private water companies maintain their own staffs, so the utility is relieved of human resources concerns. Long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) is generally included in P3 arrangements, but the structures of the agreements can be diverse, depending on client needs.
Two of the most popular P3 structures are the build-own-operate and build-own-operate-transfer contract models. They operate something like a concession agreement. Under these models, the water company builds the water asset and assumes responsibility for long-term O&M.
Some early P3 water arrangements gained an unfortunate reputation for exploitative pricing, and “privatization” initially took on some negative connotations. Since then, however, the P3 has evolved, with performance-based contracts that align the interests of the public and the private partner. Many U.S. states and countries around the world are establishing legal frameworks to encourage P3s because of their significant advantages.
Seven Seas Water Group’s Water-as-a-Service®, for instance, offers BOO and BOOT agreements with pricing established up front, and water quality is guaranteed or the company does not get paid. Water-as-a-Service® also can acquire water assets, repair and upgrade them, and then operate and maintain them.
Today’s Water-as-a-Service® P3 structures cultivate long-term partnerships, and staff for plants can be hired and developed from within the community the infrastructure serves. Contact Seven Seas to explore how P3 options can benefit your community’s water service.