As we’ve learned from highly-publicized events in Walkerton, North Battleford and Kashechewan, there are major consequences when water and wastewater treatment services don’t meet the required standards. The consequences are equally dire if there aren’t enough qualified workers to operate these services.

The available labour pool is already spread thin, and without actively planning for labour succession, many municipalities will suffer a decline in critical services, even as they invest in building new facilities and upgrading existing ones with funding from programs such as the federal Infrastructure Stimulus Fund. These investments, plus impending changes in regulations as part of the upcoming national wastewater strategy, will result in more complex facilities that will require new and different expertise. It’s time to step back and assess the current and future labour market.

Enter ECO Canada’s recent Municipal Water and Waste Management Labour Market Study. The report, to be released this March, provides an in-depth look at the issues facing municipalities, identifying current demographics of practitioners, characteristics of supply and demand of practitioners within the industry, critical human resource issues, and trends and projections for practitioners within the industry.

A greying workforce

Forty-four per cent of Canadians are over the age of 45, and in the environmental sector, that number jumps to 54 per cent. In water and wastewater, 40 per cent of facility managers are over the age of 50. With many senior practitioners rapidly approaching retirement, many municipalities are not only looking at losing key staff members, but also a wealth of experience-based knowledge

The solution isn’t simply to replenish workers. “You can always bring in younger people,” says Grant Trump, ECO Canada’s founding president, “but managers have to have experience.”

In ECO Canada’s study, water/wastewater facilities reported difficulty hiring for all positions, with at least 50 per cent of facilities reporting difficulty hiring for all positions. It concluded that these numbers show a general lack of qualified practitioners at all levels, and predicts this trend will worsen in the near future when senior people retire. Additionally, as facilities become more complex, management personnel are increasingly required to run them. These facilities require an education level that is not in common supply in the less-experienced, or younger, ranks of the workforce.

Location, location, location

Qualified operators are hard to come by, but, for smaller towns, the effect is amplified. “Urbanization is putting gigantic stresses on rural and remote communities,” says Trump. Big cities have the upper hand, and that’s due to a number of variables, not the least of which is bigger budgets. As demand outstrips supply, skilled water and wastewater workers are making choices based on their needs.

Kevin Komarnicki, director of operations for the City of Dauphin, feels the frustration. About 325 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, Dauphin is a small city of approximately 8,500. Recently, one of the City’s Class III operators was lured to Winnipeg’s new water treatment facility. He was very close to obtaining his Class IV certification, and on Dauphin’s dime.

“You can’t fault the employee for making decisions that are in his best interest,” says Komarnicki. “However, it’s frustrating for us to start over trying to train a new employee. The cycle continues: rural communities continue to serve as training grounds for the larger cities.”

We want you

Recruitment, proves the report’s survey, is a problem nation-wide. While poaching is an issue for many smaller communities, bigger cities aren’t home free—they may have the economic advantage, but they too are experiencing difficulties. One challenge unique to larger municipalities (and thus bigger populations) with level III or IV facilities is the shortage of workers with Class III or IV certification.

Additionally, while the economic downturn has resulted in a 20 per cent jump in environmental program enrolment, it is not yet known if this growth will positively affect the water/wastewater worker conundrum. “Often it’s not a person’s dream to work at a plant,” says Trump. In the future, he says, supply may not even be the issue. “It’s a combination of competencies, education, training and timing. If we don’t have workers at the right place and time, it’s not going to do us any good.”

So, how do you find those right workers at the right time?

After recruitment ads failed to produce positive leads, Dauphin took a different, customized approach. “Seeking someone with roots in our community works for us,” says Komarnicki. “We look for someone who has a minimum of two years of post-secondary education in the science or engineering fields.” With the hope that the employee will stay in the community, Dauphin created its operator-in-training position.

In an effort to retain employees, Dauphin encourages them to study for next level exams. “Within our collective agreement, we’ve included an hourly certification premium based on the highest certification that employee has obtained that relates to job responsibilities.”

“I’m not naïve enough to think that this one item has solved our recruitment and retention problems,” admits Komarnicki. “However, our employees see it as a positive gesture.”

And what works for Dauphin may not work for other small towns. Trump says solving this shortage “is going to require proactive strategies that are tailored for each region, each province, each demographic.”

“We have to look at the life cycle of the employee,” says Trump. “Change is the rule, not the exception. We have to keep pace with it.”


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