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LUFKIN — Texas’ aging water and wastewater infrastructure — already in disrepair and losing billions of gallons of water a year — is facing a second and equally ominous threat: a worker shortage.
An estimated 37% of water and 31% of wastewater workers will retire by 2028, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office. And the next generation isn’t refilling their ranks.
State lawmakers and agencies hope a new source of talent — high school students — will reverse the trend.
Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 1845, which allows high school students to work toward becoming a water or wastewater operator while they are still in school.
Previously, students had to wait until their graduation to obtain a license. Under the new law, students who complete the required training and pass an exam are eligible for provisional licenses. Once the student turns 18 and receives a high school diploma or GED, they can obtain a permanent license.
“Growing up, we were always encouraged to not do this kind of work, to go to college and do something different,” said Jason Knobloch, deputy executive director of Texas Rural Water Association. “Unfortunately, we all did that. So now there’s no one to replace the workforce in these utilities.”
According to a survey of the Texas water workforce by the Houston Advanced Research Center, 63% of respondents reported workforce-related challenges. Knobloch said this is a statewide trend, particularly in rural areas. The work can be very labor intensive and calls for people to always be on the clock, and some communities might be without amenities like movie theaters or shopping malls. Both of these factors have pushed young people away.
“It’s a challenge because of the nature of the work versus all the technology and other options that our younger generations have now,” said Knobloch.
Some water agencies have been focused on education for years before the new law was passed. In San Antonio, for example, a youth education program has been in place since 1998. Educators from the San Antonio Water System visit local schools to educate students about water issues and introduce them to career opportunities in areas ranging from engineering to public relations. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been offered online. Students can receive course credit for completing the program.
The agency has also partnered with the Texas chapter of the American Water Works Association to offer college scholarships to students interested in pursuing a career in water.
The agency has taken other steps to address hiring and retention issues. New employees are offered a hiring and retention bonus and field operators are eased into the job, especially during the hot summer months.
“When it's 105 degrees, it’s really hard to recruit people to work in the field and go dig in difficult circumstances,” said Anne Hayden, communications director at San Antonio’s water system. “We have an acclimation program so when you’re hired, we don’t send you into the noonday sun right away.”
The agency also purchased large-scale air conditioners that blow cool air into ditches for large-scale projects.
Some water agencies are also working on developing pre-recorded versions of the required training courses for a basic water or wastewater license so that students can take those courses online. School districts would be able to offer those trainings, which last about 25 hours.
“A high school teacher could press play, and a trade organization can have instructors and subject matter experts available to answer questions,” said Julie Nahrgang, executive director of the Water Environment Association of Texas, a nonprofit that provides water education.
The course will be ready by the spring of 2024 and the association is piloting it with schools in Houston and near Uvalde, Nahrgang said.
Nahrgang added that the water industry needs to be marketed more effectively to recruit new talent. Instead of calling it “water” and “wastewater,” Nahrgang advocates for the terms “drinking water” and “clean water” respectively. She says the emphasis should be on the end product, so recruits understand the value that they are adding by working in water.
“Changing the language and how we talk about what these facilities do will make the jobs more attractive,” Nahrgang said. “There’s no other industry unless we have clean drinking water.”
The Texas Rural Water Association also has programs to address the workforce issue, including an apprenticeship program for people with their high school diploma or GED. Knobloch said the program, which has been going on for over a year, has had a slow start because apprenticeships are somewhat new for the water industry. The association looks for utilities that want an apprentice and has a mentor for them to train with.
“We try to place those apprentices throughout the state and try to plug some of the holes where we see the needs are,” Knobloch said.
Knobloch said it’s important for water agencies to emphasize the value in the work to younger generations, as he said that is what many of them are looking for instead of a typical 9-5 job.
“This is necessary for the life of everyone in any community,” Knobloch said. “If there’s no one here to do this job, and do it correctly, then the town kind of falls apart. We’re seeing that the youth understands that.”