Preparing for the Water Industry’s Retirement Wave
Utilities need to examine their strategies in two key areas – people and processes – to retain employees, ensure smooth transitions, and attract the next generation of talent.
Posted on March 22, 2021 Kelly Smith
According to the EPA, almost half of the workforce will be eligible to retire by the end of this decade. Whether you’re preparing for your own transition or a leader facing this trend on your team, there’s a lot to think about in terms of how to manage this shift. It all starts with a clear strategy in two key areas: people and process.
We recently brought together three water industry veterans to discuss this issue. Tom Bruns (former President of Aqua Indiana), Gary Burlingame (Director of Bureau of Laboratory Services at Philadelphia Water Department), and Tom Ferguson (Managing Partner at Burnt Island Ventures) shared perspectives on how utilities can prepare for the next generation of the water industry. We’ve compiled some of their key insights below; watch the full conversation here.
Your people are your most valuable asset.
The water industry is full of talented workers who care deeply about the people and the mission behind their work. A massive wave of retirees will leave a large gap of experience and knowledge in the workforce, without clear succession plans and younger generations to step into the gaps created.
Utilities depend on their people to provide clean water to customers, and the ability to retain and attract new talent will help to minimize the impact of the retirement wave, building a base of dedicated employees who can grow within organizations. There are two key elements of ensuring retention: emphasizing communication with your employees and demonstrating their value.
One of the most important aspects of both attracting and retaining employees is communication. The water industry is full of well-paying, mission-driven jobs–but utilities don’t always proactively communicate the positions available, or the great work that’s being done. The next generation of workers look for meaningful high growth opportunities in their work–and the water industry can provide both.
Consider your employer brand, and how that translates in your community. Water is often a very local process, so chances are the talent pool that you’ll be tapping into over the next decade can be found in your local schools, or among your customer base. Think about how you are marketing the value of water and the value of what you do, and try new and innovative ways to connect with and engage your community. Find opportunities to give tours of your facility to local kids, or speak directly to customers in the field. Every interaction with your community is an opportunity to spread the story of water further and to build a brand that can attract talent.
In addition to strong external branding, the importance of internal technology can’t be overstated in terms of attracting a new generation of talent. Potential employees–especially the younger generation–experience the world through technology, using a multitude of tools in their everyday life. These employees will look to bring the innovation and efficiency of technology into their work life as well. Employers need to meet potential employees where they are and ensure they have the tools to do their best work.
In addition to attracting a new generation of employees to fill the gaps that will come with the retirement wave, utilities need to prioritize retaining their current workforce. It’s more important than ever to keep those who aren’t yet at retirement age, so you don’t have to spend additional time recruiting for replacements or trying to fill knowledge gaps. Many of your current employees are poised to step into the shoes of those retiring–and ensuring that they’re happy and valued will go a long way toward easing those transitions.
So much of employee retention is about value. It’s absolutely essential to make sure employees know that their work is making an impact, both within the utility and in the broader community. Part of that comes from the branding discussed above–making sure that the customers you’re serving understand the value of water and the hard work your team is doing. Internally, tactics such as employee recognition programs, opportunities to learn multiple skills, and flexible work hours can all contribute to happier employees and increased retention
Bulk up processes to ensure smooth transitions
Focusing on your people is just half of the equation to preparing your utility for the retirement wave. The other half is ensuring your team has the tools and up-to-date processes they need to do their job. Having clear and cohesive processes in place can lead to smooth knowledge transfers and transitions so your system doesn’t miss a beat over the next decade.
A key process to ensure smooth transitions is risk mitigation. Successors need to understand the risks that threaten their goals when they step into a new role, and risks should be evaluated and addressed continuously in systems. A process for risk mitigation can improve operations at your utility as well as reduce stress on your employees.
Identify risks early and often–a cadence of regular meetings to discuss risks (big or small) will help catch potential dangers that could jeopardize the goals of the utility. Often, it’s a series of small, relatively unknown risks that can create the most challenges. Most risks that ultimately harm the work your utility is doing may not be one large-scale failure–rather, it can be a series of small things going wrong.
Putting a process in place to document, prioritize, and eliminate these risks will yield benefits for years to come. Being aware of risks is absolutely critical in a transition process, and simply documenting them and talking about them can have a huge impact on the level of stress employees are under, reducing the possibilities of burnout.
Mitigating risk is an ongoing need for utilities, but putting basic processes in place can go a long way toward catching potential dangers as well as employee satisfaction.
Adopting new technology will be critical in the face of this retirement wave, and processes to capture and transfer knowledge will be at the core of transition strategies.
Both software and hardware solutions are being applied all over the water industry to improve processes–think of meter reading, data management, and automated sampling. Employee transitions should take advantage of these solutions as well. Having a digital repository of knowledge will ensure that new employees are able to engage with the knowledge of their predecessors in a way that’s convenient for them, in addition to capturing dependable data that can be transferred year over year to make transitions easier.
In leaning on such a repository, the valuable time spent transitioning successors in-person can be focused more on teaching how to apply that knowledge and make key decisions instead of relaying information. In addition to the knowledge transfer of a transition, a centralized data source from past water programs will ensure that there’s no confusion in tracking down spreadsheets or written files when successors need to reference past work or provide reports.
The water industry is changing. Shifting the status quo can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to confront some of the big challenges facing this industry, including the retirement wave and new regulations. Focus on communicating the value of water, engaging your employees, and putting processes in place backed by technology–these strategies will set your utility up for success and help to future-proof it as new challenges continue to arise.