[QTalks Ep.13]

It’s estimated that some water utilities will lose up to 50% of their operational staff in the coming 15 years. So how can they plug the gap with skilled staff and overcome the “silver tsunami”? What does water’s future workforce look like?

See what experts think in this month’s QTalks on staffing and recruitment challenges. Joining environmental journalist and QTalks host, Tom Freyberg, to discuss are:

  • Josh Newton, Global Water Consultant & Founder of the recruitment site Josh’s Water Jobs
  • Ronja Sorensen, IWA Young Professional from Denmark and Smart Mobility Consultant for Ramboll.
  • Mark Coates, Bentley Systems & Digital Twin Hub Strategic Board Member.

Full episode available below.

The silver tsunami: The looming gap in the water workforce

Tom kicked off the discussion by drawing attention to the fact that some water utilities are expected to lose up to half of their operational staff over the next fifteen years due to a huge amount of imminent retirees — otherwise known as the “silver tsunami”. 

He then asked Josh about what the data reveals about the potential outlook in the United States. Josh began by quoting a study conducted by The Brookings Institution that predicts that 1.4 million new professionals will be needed in the coming decades across the water sector. 

As well as the silver tsunami that’s expected to leave a huge gap in the workforce, Josh said that there’s also a lack of younger professionals available to backfill their positions. Tom asked about the knowledge gap that will be precipitated by the loss of the huge volumes of highly skilled and experienced operatives that are due to retire. 

Josh went on to say that this actually creates an opportunity for the changing skills that are already in demand with regard to technology, data, and other innovations that are permeating the water sector. He said that while the sector will be losing a huge amount of institutional memory and experience, there’s an opportunity to shift the sector in a new direction.

Ronja echoed Josh’s sentiments and said that Denmark is in the same position where many companies are looking for younger, international professionals to take over these jobs. Referencing the transport sector, she also said that there’s a huge gap between the younger and more senior employees where the transfer of knowledge isn’t happening organically.

Digital’s role in filling the skill shortage

Tom then went on to talk about how the role of digital and the act of recruiting professionals from other STEM-related industries could help bridge the skills gap. 

Mark began by saying how the COVID pandemic fostered a new way of working and opened up the job market. He said that the now widely-accepted concept of remote working also presents opportunities for recruiting and hiring individuals that either might not have considered working within the water sector before or might not have been able to due to geographical constraints.  

Referencing Digital Twins’ ability to enable remote asset management, Mark also mentioned how these are just one example of how digital can effectively work to bridge the skills gap and widen the talent pool.

Improving recruitment initiatives across the water sector

Tom then raised the issue of how recruitment initiatives across the water sector could be improved in order to fill the gap in the workforce. 

Josh began by saying that recruitment should start earlier than it typically does, by raising the issues of water and sanitation throughout education in middle school and informing them that there are jobs available in these spaces. 

He also referenced the gender gap in the water sector, (he said that only around 17% of jobs in the water sector are currently filled by women) which represents a huge talent pool that is not currently being tapped. 

Ronja drew on her experience as a member of the Young Water Professionals Denmark and said that this type of organization is a great way to get more students and professionals to engage in the challenges and opportunities throughout the water industry. 

She also said that instead of limiting roles and job descriptions to one specific area (e.g. a hydrologist), a more multi-disciplinary approach could help attract new talent.

How to foster interest in careers in the water sector

Tom mentioned how schools in Singapore often take trips to wastewater treatment plants so that children can see how wastewater is purified and recycled for non-potable reuse. He said that this is one interesting way of sparking interest in the sector at a young age, and asked the panel for their opinions on other methods of fostering an interest in careers in the water sector. 

Josh said that he believes that job descriptions need to be optimized — especially in terms of reducing the implicit gender bias within the wording — in order to attract women to more roles that they’re qualified for. He also said that reducing the length of job descriptions and including more information on the specific workplace will also help recruitment drives. 

Tom brought up how organizations can improve their external communication and reflect the innovative projects they’re involved with to better market their mission, purpose, and vision to help attract new talent. Josh said that this type of messaging is an important factor when it comes to attracting the younger generation to the sector. 

Ronja said that the younger generation in general wants to work for a company that really makes a difference and has a positive impact on sustainability. 

Mark said that while the value of a project’s outcome is often communicated, the value of the people and the roles that they perform is often not well communicated and that this doesn’t help to portray the importance of jobs in the water sector.

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