Water Sector Reform #4: Human Capital
With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into a structural transformation of America’s water sector. This is the fourth in a series of five posts outlining broad proposals to reform the management, governance, and regulation of U.S. drinking water, sewer, and stormwater systems. The first proposed reform was consolidation of water utilities; the second was an overhaul of financial regulation; the third was investment in information technology.
My fourth proposal is to invest in water sector human capital through workforce development and streamlining labor markets.
Working for Water
The U.S. water sector’s workforce challenge has been evident for a long time; as early as 2005 observers identified a slow-rolling retirement tsunami washing over utility organizations and recognized that the supply of workers was insufficient to meet the nation’s needs. In many ways, the water sector’s workforce issues mirror those of the wider public sector workforce. But addressing water workforce challenges isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality.
Once upon a time, water system operations was a semi-skilled job. If you had a strong back, could turn a wrench, and operate a backhoe, you could probably do it. Until recently, a water operator could get by with limited reading comprehension and little to no aptitude for math or science.
That’s no longer true. Today water and sewer system operations are highly skilled jobs. Regulations and technology are ever-advancing. Modern water systems require operators who can interpret complex regulations. Operators must have a solid working understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, and a good command of math. And they have to be able to communicate with management and engage directly with the public.
Water systems are getting smarter; water operators have to be smarter, too.
But highly-skilled operators are in short supply and human capital isn’t evenly distributed. Training up a utility operator takes a lot of time, and in rural or remote parts of the US it can be especially hard to find an adequate supply of educated workers who can be trained to operate water systems.
Human capital & utility performance
Labor availability has measurable effects on effects on water quality. A few years ago David Switzer and I analyzed the relationship between SDWA compliance and the availability of skilled workers in a labor market. We found a strong relationship between labor force education and utility performance.
We also found that larger organizations are more effective in leveraging human capital than small ones. The reason is pretty clear: if you’re a smart, ambitious person interested in a water career, a small utility is at best a stepping stone, at worst a dead-end job. There may be only a handful of employees and the only opportunity for advancement is to wait for another operator to leave—or to leave yourself. So small systems struggle to attract and retain good employees. I heard directly from one utility manager that systems sometimes deliberately choose not to invest in training because they fear that a well-trained employee will leave. It’s a kind of strategic mediocrity.
Making matters worse, each state has different training and licensing regimes for water operators. There are separate licensing systems for water and sewer. There are separate licensing programs for treatment, distribution, and collection systems. Sometimes states set up reciprocal licensing agreements, but it’s a confusing and frustrating patchwork. All those rules are sand in the gears of the labor market and discourage smart, ambitious people from entering or building careers in the water sector.
Human capital investment
We need to grow the supply of human capital, and we need to streamline the labor market. So proposal number four is to invest in workforce development, and create national certification standards for operators.
This isn’t a particularly new idea—it’s a revival of an old one. Discussions of the 1972 Clean Water Act tend to focus on the pollution controls in Titles III and IV (for obvious reasons). But importantly, the Clean Water Act included a huge federal investment in research and training. In the 1960s environmental engineering was in its infancy as a field, and when Congress passed the Clean Water Act it wasn’t exactly sure how to make the nation’s waters fishable-and-swimmable.* So Uncle Sam built human capital for the water sector as it was building physical infrastructure. It’s telling that Title I of the Clean Water Act was an investment in people, and Title II was an investment in pipes.
Folks in the water sector sometimes refer to the generation of water professionals who emerged in the 1970s and 80s as the “Class of 72,” recognizing that in many ways the field of environmental engineering came of age due to that federal investment. We need a similar investment today to build the next generation of water professionals. We need careful, data-driven research on effective utility management, leadership, and organizations. We need rigorous degree and certificate programs to funnel talent into the water sector. America’s land grant universities (like Texas A&M!) are great institutional venues for these efforts, but there are other good models out there, too.
Freeing the market
Labor markets—like most other markets—work best when buyers and sellers can exchange freely. Along with investments in research and training, we need to harmonize, liberalize, and streamline licensing regimes for water and sewer operations. Instead of a crazy patchwork of training programs and licensing requirements, let’s establish national standards and a national accreditation system for both individuals and training institutions. Organizations like ANSI and AWWA have processes in place to craft water technology standards; the same model could be applied to licensing and certification. With national training and licensing standards in effect, a smart, ambitious person could enter the water sector with the prospect of building a career that could take her anywhere.
*Political scientists call that “speculative augmentation,” which is a polite way of saying “Congress has no idea what to do, so it’s going to kick the problem to experts and hope they can figure it out.” In the case of environmental regulation, it’s worked out reasonably well.
How utility people—and everybody else—think about water issues
Each year the American Water Works Association (AWWA) conducts a survey of its members on the State of the Water Industry (SOTWI). The survey seeks to “identify and track significant challenges facing the water industry.” Among other things, the SOTWI survey asks respondents about their perceptions of various water issues, and so broadly gauges attitudes within the water sector.
It’s common for water sector folks to lament that the public doesn’t understand water issues. After several years of responding to SOTWI and reading the results, I wondered: How does the public perceive water issues? How closely do attitudes within the industry align with those of the general public?
Organizations like Texas A&M’s Institute for Science, Technology & Public Policy (ISTPP) offer a way to answer those questions scientifically. In the summer of 2015 I worked with ISTPP colleagues to deploy a nationally representative mass public survey of attitudes toward energy, agriculture, and environmental issues in the United States. The ISTPP survey yielded nearly 2,000 respondents. As part of the ISTPP survey, we included several items about water policy taken directly from the SOTWI survey. Identical wording and question structure provides an extraordinary opportunity to compare attitudes within the water sector (the “pros”) against attitudes in the general public (the “Joes”).
The SOTWI questionnaire included 34 items; from among these we selected 11 items that directly ask the respondents’ perceptions of water issues such as water resources, capital, and affordability for low-income households. All 11 attitudinal questions are based on a five-point scale: unimportant (1), slightly important (2), important (3), very important (4), and critical (5).
Convergence & divergence
Some interesting patterns emerged. Average values ranged between 3.2 and 4.6 among the Pros, with infrastructure replacement emerging as a clear #1 priority. The general public averaged 3.10-4.11, with long-term supply availability as the top value. Ordinal rankings—that is, which issues were more or less important relative to each other—were fairly consistent between Pros and Joes.
But the really interesting picture emerges when we look at the disparities in average scores across the eleven issue area. This graph shows the difference in average score for Pros minus average for Joes:
The most striking disparities are at the top and bottom of the graph. Water sector respondents perceive infrastructure replacement, regulatory compliance, and source water protection as much more important than does the public. Meanwhile, the public evidently views low-income affordability as significantly more important than does the water sector.
Together, these results offer clues about the areas of relative harmony and dissonance between the American water sector and the American public. Water organizations and utility communications staff should perhaps concentrate on developing effective ways to convey the significance of infrastructure replacement, regulatory compliance, and source water protection.
By the same token, these findings suggest that low-income affordability matters much more to the public Joes than to water sector Pros. It stands to reason that taking affordability seriously can help utility leaders legitimize their own priorities to the public.