Experienced boomers in the water industry are on the cusp of retirement. Who will fill all those vacancies and ease the impending labor crisis?
That quandary is not new, but one of AWWA’s ways of tackling the issue is: hiring military Veterans.
“We have identified Veterans as a really good fit for our industry,” said Katie McCain, a former AWWA president and chair of the Veterans’ Workforce Initiative, a subcommittee of the Workforce Strategies Committee. “Veterans have a strong work ethic. They learn quickly, they are used to regulations and they know how to make do with what they have.”
To speed things along, the committee is challenging each water service provider to hire at least one Veteran between now and AWWA’s Annual Conference & Exposition (ACE16) next year in Chicago. Those that do will receive a flag to display in their booths, McCain said, and recognition at the Water Industry Luncheon.
The shortage of skilled water workers has long been predicted. Studies typically peg the loss of utility workers at 30 to 50 percent during the next decade. The first wave of retiring boomers -- post World War II babies born between 1946 and 1964-- was expected to hit around 2010, but the recession two years earlier delayed retirements, so that the mass exodus began more recently.
The committee is targeting Veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but hiring any Vet from any branch of service qualifies to meet the challenge, McCain said. The U.S. Army projected last year that 130,000 soldiers would transition from the service by the year 2019, while tens of thousands more will move out of the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force.
“It can be stressful to go from a regimented society back to civilian life,” said Major George Coleman, education and training director for Soldier for Life, a program that helps soldiers transition out of the military. Coleman attended ACE15 in Anaheim to explain his program and meet AWWA leadership.
“It’s a great initiative,” Coleman said of AWWA’s drive to steer Vets to careers in water. “Veterans can provide technical expertise. As soldiers, we’re used to working long hours and shift work. A lot of plant work is on a 24-hour cycle and being able to work non-traditional hours is something soldiers are comfortable with.”
Coleman said about 30 percent of exiting soldiers choose to live near where they were stationed; 30 percent return home; and 30 percent go where they find jobs. McCain said her committee has offered to connect employers with Veterans through the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some AWWA members sought to hire Vets even before the Workforce Strategies Committee challenge. Alex Hood, operations manager at M.E. Simpson Co, Inc., a leak detection, meter testing, valve assessment services company in Valparaiso, Ind., said 10 of his company’s 30 field technicians are Veterans.
“I have pushed for this for years,” said Hood, a Marine veteran and member of a Workforce Strategies subcommittee. “A lot of military people have heavy equipment experience and can roll into a job in the water industry.”
“Also, the nature of our business is a lot of travel. These guys are used to getting out and being away from their families. The short-term travel we do within the continental U.S. is no big deal compared to an 18-month deployment.”
That resonates with Vince Arizpe, a former Marine platoon sergeant who was deployed to Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California and planned to stay in California after his discharge in the summer of 2014, but financial concerns compelled him to return home to Indiana.
He never considered a career in water until a friend told him M.E. Simpson liked to hire Vets.
“It’s hard labor and I like it,” Arizpe said of his work as a field technician at M.E. Simpson. “There’s a lot more to it than I thought. I work with water lines, leak detections, flow testing of fire hydrants and valve exercising for different water departments. I never wanted to sit behind a desk.”
The key to filling water sector vacancies, McCain said, is figuring out how to attract Vets. She thinks she has at least one of the answers.
“We have careers as opposed to jobs,” McCain said. “Veterans had a mission in the military. They had an important job. We look at our work in the water industry as a mission, to provide safe water for our customers. It’s rewarding and fulfilling and that gives them a sense of purpose that replaces what they gave up when they left the service.
“And they will pretty much always have work. Every community has a water system and it takes people to keep those systems sustainable.”