From The Editor | October 12, 2017

Retiring In Droves — Solving The Operator Replacement Crisis

By Bill King

Retiring In Droves – Solving The Operator Replacement Crisis

Attending WEFTEC in Chicago last week, I was struck by the industry’s growing focus on intelligence. Whether being forced to address intelligence with the wide scale retirement of many of our treatment facilities' most knowledgeable heads or being spurred on by the increasing intelligence being built into our treatment equipment and machinery, it very much felt like we’re opening up a new chapter in the history of water treatment.  

It was prescient that the Opening Session’s keynote speaker was a high school science teacher who spoke about the engineering talent he fostered from an impoverished community. Uplifting as it was, it made me realize how naïve we perhaps have been, spending lots of time and energy on trying to figure out how to make treatment plant operations an attractive job for the Millennial generation and beyond.

We should just face it: Working with wastewater is not an attractive job. Anybody who has gone off to college and studied engineering has plenty of options that likely pay and smell better. And unfortunately, having encouraged a generation to expect business and finance degrees to trump careers in engineering, we’ve exacerbated the problem by making STEM students ever scarcer and more likely to be poached away from us by other industries.

Those engineers that remain in the environmental sciences arena are surely to be snatched up by the engineering firms, service providers, and equipment manufacturers before ever taking a step into a plant. And so we look to our traditional labor pool for our treatment plant operators. Non-college grads willing to put in long hours, bracing themselves against the elements year-round and willing to stay local.

And yet this pool of labor is dwindling after decades of encouragement from their parents to better oneself by going off to college. I’ve heard my teenagers’ generation referred to as “globalists.” Through the digitization of the world’s economy, they are on the move and wanting to see the world, not interested in settling down to an honest day’s work in their home town for the next 40 years.

I’m not wanting to sound elitist. The non-college-bound mechanically-minded are arguably going to be some of our more affluent citizens in the years ahead. In short supply, the earning potential in the plumbing, electrical, and general contractor trades is arguably going to surpass that of the newly-minted mob of business school grads. Again, there will be better options than the WWTP for our next generation.

As I talked to engineers, equipment suppliers, and service providers alike, I realized that this knowledge gap is going to be filled by machined intelligence. Veolia Water Technologies’ AquaVista monitoring technology or Xylem’s Godwin NC150S smart dewatering pump (you can see the launch at the show here) are great examples of this. In both cases, sensors will constantly monitor performance and data will be stored, analyzed, and reported on from cloud-based servers utilizing Internet of Things (IoT) communication paths and technology.

At the same time, as we see baby boomers retiring from our industry, data capture and automated diagnostics are going to replace manual sampling, pens, clipboards, set maintenance schedules, etc.… The critical need to replace treatment plant operators at the plant will diminish as service providers seize the opportunity using the diagnostics that their systems output to send out crews to complete maintenance tasks on an as-needed basis.  The performance of the treatment plant of the future, like much of our world, will rest in the hands of outsourced contractors rather than a large operational team on-site 7 days a week. There will be managers and there will be a smaller staff of technicians, but the body of plant operations staff (increasingly hard to attract) will no longer be employed in the industry.

The artificial intelligence battle has begun. This is the battle that the vast majority of equipment manufacturers, service operation companies, and engineering firms are now waging. And it’s going to be content volume and the quality of messaging that will win the field. Smart water, IoT, LoRaWAN, and a host of other terms are being embraced by all. How will you differentiate your intelligence from the competition?

Image credit: "UFV Retirement 2012 (4)," University of the Fraser Valley, 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/