Dayton area communities, like many across the country, could be facing a shortage of water utility workers as more employees become eligible for retirement.
Fewer skilled and trained workers capable of operating increasingly complicated water treatment facilities could compromise the safety of drinking water within communities around the country, according to experts.
“Not replacing those critical workers is not an option,” said Greg Kail, communications director for the American Water Works Association. “You need a reliable water system to function as a society. In the absence of a reliable water treatment and delivery system, we would be in the same position undeveloped countries are in today.”
Regardless of size or funding, federal guidelines require all communities to have the same quality of drinking of water.
“Water utilities are facing a big challenge when it comes to their water facilities because not only are their older professionals likely to retire in the upcoming years, but they’re having difficulty getting people who are trained and have the technical expertise to replace those key positions,” Kail said.
Water utility operator jobs require a high school diploma or equivalent. Operators are must also have a certain number of hours of on the job experience and pass U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exams to obtain required licenses.
Ohio workers in this industry earned an hourly mean wage of $21.09 and an annual mean wage of $43,860, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Greene County, the sanitary engineering department, which has a $27.3 million water and sewer budget and 23 licensed workers, has vacancies for a wastewater treatment supervisor, an entry-level water treatment plant worker and a utility maintenance worker. The department director, Ron Volkerding, said he expects five to 10 more positions to become vacant within the next five years as more employees become eligible for retirement.
“The public, expects that their tap water is safe and we’re doing what we can to keep the streams and rivers clean,” Volkerding said. “They expect that over time the water is continuously getting better. The (federal) standards keep changing and the water quality keeps improving. Both on the drinking water and the surface water. That doesn’t just happen. It requires some really knowledgeable and dedicated people to make that happen.”
In Warren County, which has a $15.7 million combined water and sewer budget, about 13 of its 69 workers will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, according to Chris Brausch, the county sanitary engineer.
Within the last five years, three Montgomery County wastewater workers and three water sewer workers have retired, said Patrick Turnbull, the Montgomery County Sanitary Engineer. Three wastewater operators will be eligible to retire in in the next five years.
The Montgomery County Environmental Services Department employs about 50 water and sewer workers. The county water treatment operations employs 38 workers which is down from the 68 workers that were employed in the late 1990s.
The department annually spends about $80 million on water and sewer operations.
“We’ve been able to use technology to do more work with fewer people,” Turnbull said.
The number of water utility workers in Miami County, about six, has remained steady over the last decade, said Jillian Rhoades, the Miami County sanitary engineer. Miami County has a small water system, with a $10 million budget, that provides services for unincorporated parts of the county, so the number may not have fluctuated as much as other counties, she added.
According to the 2013 AWWA State of the Water Industry report, expected to be published later this year, less than 5 percent of the water utility departments and companies surveyed said they feel the industry is prepared to cope with changes to the workforce over the next five years, Kail said.
Water and sewer departments will need to consider recruiting new workers from other fields, he added.
Dale Achtermann, a 55-year-old New Vienna resident, was hired as a operator at the Greene County wastewater treatment facility in Beavercreek. He thought he had job stability working as a freight handler for Airborne Express for 22 years until DHL, Airborne Express’ parent company announced it would cut 9,500 jobs in 2008. Achtermann was laid off in September 2009.
In 2010, he started a 16-week training course with the Operator Training Committee of Ohio, based in Columbus. That same year, he passed the EPA wastewater operator exam. The following year he passed his EPA water exam.
Achtermann was interested in becoming a welder until someone told him he probably wouldn’t be able to find a job and suggested he look into becoming a wastewater operator.
“You’ll never get laid off at water or wastewater plant,” he said. “That’s what I was looking for — a job that I will not get laid off from again.”