WWA discusses resiliency in Wyoming’s water workforce
On Oct. 22, during the second day of the Wyoming Water Association’s (WWA) annual meeting and seminar, themed “Risk, Resiliency and Readiness,” the association dove into issues surrounding Wyoming’s water workforce.
“Ensuring Wyoming has access to the water resources needed for businesses, agriculture industries, recreation, cities and towns is our top priority. We all depend on water to be safe to drink and clean to irrigate our crops,” stated Jodee Pring, WWA’s first vice president. “Behind all of these water activities are skilled workers who are part of the water sector workforce.”
Pring noted this workforce is responsible for operating and maintaining Wyoming’s water. However, a major challenge facing the state is the staff shortage in the water workforce.
“As a state, we need to address these pending shortages with focused engagement at all levels of government including our private and public water sector partners,” Pring said.
Sustainability Program Manager of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Jim Horne and Jim Ginley, co-chair on WWA’s Utility Management Committee and member of the Rocky Mountain Section of the American Water Works Association, were present at the meeting to help explore the issue.
Both Horne and Ginley explained there are a few trends facing the water workforce, not only in Wyoming but at all levels of government, all across the country.
“Some of these trends aren’t new. They are things that have been happening over the past few years,” stated Ginley.
According to the two experts, these trends include a higher number of retirees, trouble recruiting and retaining the next generation and the need for a resilient and tech-savvy workforce, which requires training. All of these trends are being seen in Wyoming’s local water workforce.
In fact, Dena Egnehoff, WWA board member, noted, “The Board of Public Utilities had 18 people – and over 520 years of service – retire last year. Because of this, we have gone through a bunch of adjustments across our entire department and we are still suffering from the 520 years of institutional knowledge that walked out of our doors.”
Egnehoff said another issue the board is facing is retention of employees.
“We have operators who can go out and find better paying jobs in the private sector,” she added. “These are highly-qualified folks who came in and got their certification and their license, which we invested our money in and then they end up taking those licenses and moving into the private sector.”
North Platte Coordinator and Wyoming State Engineer Office’s Jeff Cowly, also offered insight into issues he has seen.
“Right now we are going through unprecedented short falls in income, due to state budget cuts,” he noted. “We also get a lot of applicants to fill our open positions, but finding a qualified individual is difficult.”
Strategic workforce planning
In an effort to build resiliency in the water workforce, Horne explained the notion of strategic workforce planning, which focuses on many of the issues Wyoming’s water sector is facing.
“There are four pillars in strategic workforce planning,” Horne explained. “The first is recruitment, which looks at understanding how to bring in people to work in the water sector. We need to implement appropriate recruitment strategies so we are getting the right people to work for us.”
According to Horne, retention is the second pillar.
“One of the most important things in the pillar of retention, in my opinion, is having the right kind of organizational culture and human resources program,” Horne stated. “I think it is important to have a career path for those employees as soon as they walk through the door, versus an immediate job for the day.”
Horne noted the third pillar is competency, which ensures employees have the correct training and certification they need to be competent in their specific sector of the workforce.
The final pillar Horne listed is building community partnerships.
Horne and Ginley offered insight into several helpful initiatives at all levels of government to help combat the issues the water sector is facing in regards to the workforce.
“There are four things we are going to do in 2021 at a local level and across the Rocky Mountain West,” stated Ginley.
During the first quarter, Ginley explained they will offer a webinar to help inform the public of the four pillars mentioned by Horne as well as introduce the following events.
“The next two events will be half-day, virtual workshops – one during the second quarter and one during the third,” he said. “We will have a moderator, some presentations, a panel discussion and most importantly, we will encourage audience participation so we know what our sector is struggling with, and we can find ways to help them.”
Ginley noted the first workshop will focus on the first two pillars of recruitment and retention while the second will focus on competency and community partnerships.
“Through those two events, we will be able to get information out and gather information from participants on what they want to see, hear and do when we come together for our main event during quarter four,” Ginley said. “This will be a live, in-person, two-day workshop, where we will have the chance to take what we learned from the first three events and compile this information to create a game plan we can implement across the Rocky Mountain region.”
Ginley said the workshop is tentatively being scheduled for late fall of next year.
At the federal level, Horne explained one of the biggest initiatives to help with the particular issue is the creation of America’s Water Workforce Initiative.
“This is the first time in my long history at EPA anybody in the office of water or the EPA at large has even paid any attention to the water workforce, and it is great,” Horne said. “We have spent the last two years on a bit of a rollercoaster, but we finally issued the initiative on Oct. 5 of this year.”
Horne noted this initiative is intended as a call to action across the sector.
“It isn’t a laundry list of the activities EPA will be taking on, although there is a lot we will be doing,” he said. “It is more of a list of actions other partners, such as federal agencies, national associations, states and tribes, will be taking to ensure we have a sustainable and resilient workforce as we move into the future.”
Additionally, Horne explained EPA has completed a series of water workforce case studies, looking at eight utilities around the country to highlight their innovative approaches to addressing workforce challenges.
“These utilities range in size and are from all over the country. They are not incredibly long, but they go into quite a bit of detail to highlight innovative programs we can all learn from,” Horne added, noting these case studies are under final review at EPA and should be released to the public soon.
Horne continued, “Additionally, I am also happy to note, Congress has both authorized and appropriated money to EPA for a new workforce grant over the last two years.”
The Water Workforce Infrastructure and Utility Development Grant Program provided $1 million in federal funding to EPA, and Horne noted the agency will soon be issuing application requests for the program.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.