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Opinion: Building a Water Workforce for America’s Future

Infrastructure investment must include training for those who manage our critical water systems

It is critical to invest in training for the engineers and technicians  who keep the nation’s critical water systems in operation, Tonko writes. Pictured above, the Kensico Dam and Reservoir in Valhall, N.Y. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)
It is critical to invest in training for the engineers and technicians  who keep the nation’s critical water systems in operation, Tonko writes. Pictured above, the Kensico Dam and Reservoir in Valhall, N.Y. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)

America faces a tough reality when it comes to our drinking water infrastructure. Eighty-six percent of U.S. households today depend on public water, and the EPA has estimated that nearly $400 billion will be needed in the coming decades just to keep those systems in working order.

Unfortunately, underground pipes and pumps aren’t the only critical components of these systems that are being overlooked. Even as water system failures hit communities all across the U.S., the professionals who keep these beleaguered systems operating safely are aging too. Many are already approaching retirement. In fact, some 37 percent of water utility workers and 31 percent of wastewater utility workers are expected to retire in the next decade.

New needs

I was reminded of this ominous reality a few weeks ago as I was visiting drinking water systems in my district for Engineering Week. At site after site, a local water manager walked me through the details of their systems, from source to treatment to tap. Every system I visited was as unique and complex as the communities and ecosystems in which they have evolved. Some are fed by groundwater wells that tap into vast underground aquifers that span communities. Other rural communities tap into the water systems of their larger municipal neighbors. Many upstate New York water systems are fed by surface water including reservoirs, rivers and streams. All have their own specialized treatment needs and system layouts and procedures, developed and refined over a matter of years to ensure that safe water comes out of your tap.

Our water workforce needs to be just as nimble as these systems are diverse. Today, some water managers are trained engineers, while others are public works managers who do a hundred other jobs every day. All of them bear the massive responsibility of delivering clean, safe water to the people of their community. And none of them are getting any younger.

Jobs in water engineering are more than just a local public works concern. Many businesses, including large manufacturers, rely on reliable, affordable, and safe water service. During my water systems tour, I visited Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation, a major baby food manufacturer in Montgomery County, New York, that requires 275,000 gallons of clean water every single day to continue manufacturing. In my years working on this issue, one simple phrase has stuck with me: Every life and every job depends on access to water. And when the water stops, whether because a pipe breaks or a new contaminant enters the environment, our communities, our neighbors’ lives and our businesses grind to a halt.

New legislation

So last October I teamed up with Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., to introduce the Developing Tomorrow’s Engineering and Technical Workforce Act. This bill would deliver resources to help elementary and secondary schools provide students with formal and informal engineering education. Helping students of all backgrounds build analytical and experimental skills early in life will mean America is training a more competitive, thoughtful and diverse workforce that can drive global innovation and support inspiring, visionary work in engineering and engineering technology.

Under the bill, grants would be awarded to state and local educational agencies to support, develop, and implement formal and informal engineering education programs in elementary and secondary schools, including engineering instructional materials that are locally relevant. It would also:

    • Provide professional development for pre-service and in-service teachers to teach engineering
    • Provide instructions on engineering and engineering technology during normal classroom hours or after school
    • Incorporate evidence-based practices to increase diversity of student groups participating in the program
    • Encourage the participation of engineers from local private and public organizations to mentor the teachers and students
    • Encourage engineering faculty and students from institutions of higher education to serve as mentors for elementary school or secondary school students, and teachers as appropriate

The bill also includes provisions to increase participation of underrepresented student groups in the engineering and engineering technology pipeline.

New imperative

We need a workforce with the skills to manage critical water systems across all sectors of our economy. As existing systems age, the pressure on water managers, systems engineers and local government budgets will only grow. If we don’t take action, our water workforce will be heading for retirement just as these systems hit their breaking points.

There is only one answer to this challenge, and it’s a simple one: We must focus federal infrastructure investment on drinking water systems and make sure that investment includes training for the engineers and technicians that keep those hidden systems in operation. Congress and our civic leaders at all levels of government must commit to fixing and upgrading our local water systems, and to planting the seeds of tomorrow’s water workforce before it’s too late.

Rep. Paul Tonko, an engineer by training, is a Democrat representing New York’s 20th District. He serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and is the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee.

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