Water and wastewater systems across the country have faced challenges finding and retaining operators over the last few years as the labor market has continued to tighten. The labor shortage has been particularly acute for small water and wastewater systems which have struggled with finding and training operators to replace experienced employees approaching retirement. These and other staffing challenges have led operators to reach out to trusted local partners, including regional development organizations, for support. A webinar hosted by the Environmental Finance Center Network in partnership with the NADO Research Foundation profiles one response to this workforce challenge in Kentucky, the Green River Area Development District’s Hire to Operate (H2O) program.
The water and wastewater sectors in Western Kentucky face multiple overlapping workforce challenges. As the region has continued to grow, increased demand for water and wastewater treatment services has put a strain on the existing capacity of small systems. A 2014 report from the Kentucky Center for Statistics estimated that the need for water and wastewater operators in the region would grow by more than 6% over the next decade.
At the same time, systems are struggling with an aging workforce. The numbers are troubling—the median age of Kentucky’s water sector workforce is 55 and more than half of operators are eligible to retire in the next two to five years. The retirement of seasoned operators poses immediate challenges to wastewater systems not only because of short-term staffing problems but also because it erodes the institutional knowledge those workers accumulate throughout their careers. Pete Conrad, Superintendent at the Henderson County Water District, highlighted the complexity of this challenge on the webinar, commenting, “You can’t replace 27 years of intelligence in five minutes. It just doesn’t happen.” A recent NADO RF case study explores how the neighboring Pennyrile Area Development District has partnered with water and wastewater systems in its region to address institutional knowledge losses.
Workforce retirements and a growing demand for operators create the need for systems to hire and train new staff. Unfortunately, the sector’s relatively low pay and expensive training requirements have combined with a tight labor market to make it difficult to bring new staff onboard. Small water and wastewater systems have limited budgets that often cannot pay for hundreds of hours of required technical training or compete with the private sector on hourly wages. During his presentation, Conrad noted that his district is competing for workers with a large recycling plant that offers starting wages nearly twice as high as the water and wastewater sector can afford to pay. The promise of better job security and benefits are often not enough to compete, especially because prospective workers perceive that the technical skills necessary to become a water systems professional do not translate well to other jobs should they choose to switch industries in the future.
To address the need for more operators in Kentucky, several state and local partners came together to establish the Hire to Operate (H2O) program. The H2O program is a collaboration of the Kentucky Rural Water Association (KRWA), the United States Department of Labor, and the Delta Regional Authority’s Delta Workforce Program, with grant administration and oversight provided by the Green River Area Development District (GRADD). The program’s goal is to increase the number of certified operators in Henderson, McLean, Union, and Webster counties through a Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP).
The KRWA RAP was established in 2019 and offers a high-quality apprenticeship program that enables individuals to gain workplace-relevant knowledge and skills through on-the-job training and related technical instruction. Apprentices are often hired without the required credentials or full knowledge of the industry. The RAP requires apprentices to complete 4,000 hours of On-the-Job Training for approximately two years, along with 288 hours of Related Technical Instruction (RTI). As apprentices progress through the program, their skill level and wages increase systematically. “It’s an opportunity for utility programs to grow their own. College isn’t for everybody, and no matter how much education you have, on-the-job training is where you’ll get that practical experience,” commented webinar panelist Heather Stevenson, KRWA’s Workforce Development Coordinator. “It’s a way to create and keep operators in the pipeline.”
The H2O program aims to remove barriers to enrollment in the KRWA RAP and address the shortage of certified water and wastewater operators. It utilizes grant funds secured by GRADD through the Delta Workforce Program to pay for 1,000 hours of On-the-Job Training for ten apprentices, with a wage of up to $12 per hour, and 202.25 hours of RTI for each apprentice. GRADD worked with counties in its service area to secure the $150,000 grant and provides grant administration and oversight, as well as outreach and recruitment for the H2O program. The program is specifically designed to support the apprentices’ training and help them gain the skills and experience necessary to become successful water and wastewater operators.
Initial Results and Impact:
To date, three apprentices have graduated as certified operators and have been hired by their respective sponsor utilities. Five more apprentices remain in the process of completing On-the-Job training hours and are anticipated to graduate in the spring of 2023. Graduates of the program have filled immediate needs for local water and sewer operators, allowing them to weather the labor challenge and continue to provide top-notch service to communities across the region.
The successes of the first cohort in the H2O program and positive reviews from participants and partners led GRADD to submit another grant application to the Delta Workforce Program. The influx of funds will continue to grow the program, make it more responsive to specific needs identified by local water and wastewater operators, and pay for a larger second round of apprentices to begin their training. Webinar panelist Paula Payne, GRADD’s Workforce Development Coordinator, commented, “We hope to continue creating a pipeline of highly qualified operators for rural utilities and stable, quality careers for individuals in our workforce…This training has been so meaningful to our small communities.”
Because of their expertise and role as regional conveners, Regional Development Organizations (RDOs) like the Green River Area Development District are well-suited to assist the water and wastewater systems in the regions that they serve. Small Water Systems, which are systems with fewer than 10,000 customer hookups, partner with their local RDOs on issues like funding opportunities, data collection and mapping, supporting regionalization, and more.
To learn more about RDOs like the Green River Area Development District and how they can support your own local planning and infrastructure efforts, visit www.nado.org. If your community is not yet connected with your RDO or you are unsure which RDO serves where you live, please reach out to NADO Research Foundation Associate Director Brett Schwartz at [email protected].
This case study was written by NADO RF Graduate Fellow Dion Thompson-Davoli. Special thanks to GRADD Workforce Coordinator Paula Payne for her assistance and review.
The NADO Research Foundation is a partner organization in the Smart Management for Small Water Systems project, a collaborative effort between the members of the Environmental Finance Center Network, the NADO Research Foundation, and the Government Finance Officers Association. The Smart Management for Small Water Systems Project seeks to address major issues facing the nation’s smallest drinking water systems (those serving 10,000 or fewer people). Our team of experts works with water systems across the country, US territories, and the Navajo Nation to address these issues, which range from asset management and rate setting to water loss detection and conservation, through training and technical assistance. This project is made possible through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The information presented above does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of US EPA.