America must act to ensure qualified water workforce

America must act to ensure qualified water workforce
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Water is the lifeblood of our society and a key economic engine employing workers nationwide. A new report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program found that, in 2016, 1.7 million workers were directly involved in designing, constructing, operating  and governing U.S. water infrastructure. 

From skilled trades such as plumbers and electrical engineers to white-collar jobs in finance and administration, the business of water is essential to the American economy. Water and wastewater facilities, and corresponding job opportunities, are found everywhere in America. They offer good wages and benefits, providing solid middle-class careers — and the jobs cannot be relocated.

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The Brookings report found that water occupations often pay more, on average, compared to all occupations nationally and pay up to 50 percent more to workers at lower ends of the income scale. But across the industry, from rural areas and small towns in West Virginia to cities such as Camden, New Jersey, employers are struggling to find qualified workers to protect and manage our water resources.

 

The Water Research Foundation projects that in the next 10 years, roughly one-third of all current water and wastewater utility workers will retire. In many places, such as Chicago and Atlanta, over 50 percent of the water and wastewater workforce is eligible to retire in the next decade. We must act now to ensure the pipeline of well-qualified workers does not run dry.

This is a bipartisan challenge that also offers economic opportunity for the residents of our cities and towns who need jobs. Congress has recognized this problem and included a grant program in America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (S. 2800) to help industry hire and train qualified professionals to keep America’s water resources flowing. The original bill (S. 2346) was introduced by senators from our states, Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies Bernie Sanders socialism moves to Democratic mainstream MORE (D-N.J.) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate GOP battles for leverage with House on spending Lawmakers, media team up for charity tennis event The Hill's Morning Report — Trump picks new fight with law enforcement, intelligence community MORE (R-W.Va.), and we thank them for their leadership on this critical issue.

This training will open the door to the middle class for thousands of American workers, who are desperately needed to build and maintain our water infrastructure across America. As the baby boomers head into retirement, it is essential that we train the next generation of qualified workers who will be responsible for the safety of our water supply and the sustainability of our infrastructure.

Every year, there are more than 230,000 water main breaks across the United States. In 2013, there were 100 in San Francisco alone, while the nation’s capital — where Civil War-era pipes are not uncommon — averages more than one break every day of the year. 

Updating and investing in American infrastructure is a nonpartisan priority. But to do the job, we need skilled workers who are trained to maintain our public water systems. Training needs vary across the range of jobs in the water utility sector. Many jobs require a high school diploma or less, but they do require more extensive on-the-job training and familiarity with a variety of tools and technologies.

Water utilities recognize their role as anchor institutions in communities and are developing partnerships to enhance operations while improving quality of life for residents, including efforts to connect people to economic opportunities. In Camden, New Jersey — where the unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent — the region’s primary wastewater utility, Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, partners with community groups to manage green infrastructure and train residents for associated jobs.

As part of a six-month AmeriCorps program, PowerCorps Camden aims to develop the next generation of Camden’s environmental stewards by providing job training and readiness services for 60 young people each year. PowerCorps members help to maintain over 50 green infrastructure installations, including 20 rain gardens, 10 city and county parks, 400 vacant lots, and 5,500 stormwater inlets that comprise Camden’s green infrastructure network.

The federal government can support workforce development in the water utility sector by incentivizing similar local partnerships to train workers across the country. The Innovative Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Grant Program offers a rare opportunity for a multifaceted political victory — one that can be achieved with bipartisan support. We can address a critical infrastructure and public health need by investing in our water infrastructure, training thousands of Americans for good-paying jobs, and ensuring that we have safe and reliable water for cities, towns and farms across America.

David C. Sago is president of the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association.

Andrew Kricun is executive director and chief engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority in New Jersey.