Developing a water workforce: The conversation

Jeremy Mazur, Texas 2036 water senior policy advisor, and Renzo Soto, Texas 2036 education and workforce policy advisor, converse about the Legislature’s efforts this session to encourage more Texans to embark on careers at their local water utilities, a key area of the state’s infrastructure but one that is facing challenges in attracting enough workers.

JEREMY MAZUR: Hi Renzo! One of the running discussions we have at Texas 2036 is on what policy interventions could be used to address the water industry’s workforce shortage.

Looking at recent survey data released by the Texas Water Infrastructure Network and Water Opinions LLC, 82% of water utilities surveyed are worried about their current or future workforce capacity. While the need for investing in new water supplies and fixing failing systems is real, so, too, is the need for expanding our water workforce.

RENZO SOTO: Frankly, I’m not surprised that such a large percentage of water utilities are expressing concern about their workforce capacity. The water industry isn’t alone. We’re on 22 straight months of record-high employment levels in Texas, and just to be clear, this is absolutely a great thing.

But we now have an issue with a tight labor market considering that our unemployment rate is at a low 4.1%, meaning that practically every Texan who wants a job already has one. So the water industry is now in competition with all other industries in Texas to find qualified workers from a limited talent pool.

Water workforce: A new pipeline

JEREMY: Sounds like one solution includes developing a workforce pipeline — pun intended. The good news is that the Legislature approved HB 1845 earlier this year. This bill creates a pathway through a provisional certification program for high school students to enter the state’s water workforce. Renzo, you pointed out to me that HB 1845 aligns with the state’s strategy for workforce development. What do you mean by that?

water workforce body image1RENZO: Bear with me for a bit here because I’m going to have to dive into a couple years’ worth of work. In 2021, the Legislature passed HB 3767, which charged our state education and workforce agencies to create shared workforce goals and strategies and to unify the agencies’ efforts around them.

The goals and strategies adopted in 2022 included a focus on increasing opportunities for students to pursue a work-based model of learning. This means the state wants more opportunities like job shadowing, internships and apprenticeships accessible to students.

To bring it back, I think HB 1845 reflects the state’s desire to see more work-based learning for students. Ideally, we’ll see partnerships between water utilities and school districts where they set up courses allowing students to learn the knowledge and skills that operators need, visit worksites to shadow operators, and even do some hands-on work under supervision. So what do you think, Jeremy? Is this something you can see water utilities being interested in pursuing?

Developing the next generation

JEREMY: I think so. Utilities are keenly aware that a qualified, experienced workforce is the key to their continued success and, more critically, compliance with state and federal health, safety and environmental protection requirements. Also, the success of any investments in water or wastewater infrastructure hinges on the availability of qualified workers to operate those systems. This is a key point within the Texas 2036 Water Infrastructure Blueprint for the 88th Session.

I know that several water trade associations, including the Water Environment Association of Texas and the Texas Section of the American Water Works Association are working with high schools on developing training programs.

And the San Antonio Water System — a leading water innovator in my book — is launching a program to encourage students’ interest in water. Perhaps once we see the rules adopted for implementing HB 1845 we could see more. That said, Renzo, what could be some of the next challenges or opportunities in developing Texas’ water workforce?

Flexible career pathways

water workforce body image2RENZO: In other industries, we’re seeing an aging workforce, particularly in higher-level positions. I’m sure the water industry is starting to feel this as well, like with senior operators or engineers.

JEREMY: That is 100% spot-on.

RENZO: If we look at educational requirements for these jobs, we see employers typically look for workers with college degrees. The next steps for building a skilled water workforce must include opportunities for the high school students benefiting from HB 1845 to upskill.

This could mean a college or university looking at knowledge and skills the entry-level operator learns on the job to see if they could grant college credit, making it easier for the operator to go back to school and earn a degree. This could also mean employers working with colleges or workforce training providers to chop up the competencies taught in degree programs and, instead, offer shorter programs that build on one another.

This allows workers to earn the required higher-level licenses and certifications while being out of the workforce for less time. These strategies can ensure that the water industry can offer its workforce the ability to advance in their careers and, simultaneously, retain and foster existing talent.

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