There’s no shortage of water issues to worry about – with pollution, drought, climate change, shrinking supplies and growing populations among them. One concern that might not be top of mind for most is the water workforce.
One-third of the U.S. water workforce will be eligible to retire within the decade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Advanced treatment technologies and drinking water and wastewater regulations require skilled employees to replenish the ranks.
Studies, including a 2018 Brookings Institute report, found that the water sector lacks gender and racial diversity, especially in higher-level, higher-paying positions. In 2016, nearly 85% of water workers were men and two-thirds were white. Women constitute 47% of the U.S. workforce across all occupations but only accounted for 15% of the water workforce.
Expanding and diversifying the U.S. water workforce is one of the Colorado Water Center’s goals.
“The mission of the water center is to use the tools of research, outreach and education to address water issues of importance to Colorado, the region and the nation,” said John Tracy, director of the center, which is based at Colorado State University. “One of the roles we can play is broadly supporting educational initiatives that work toward both building the workforce and expanding the base of the workforce.”
The water workforce shortage is a nationwide problem that is largely hidden from public view, Tracy said. As long as water is still flowing, people likely won’t notice there’s a problem.
Without skilled workers to replace retiring employees, service will decline and contamination could become more common. Some states, including Texas, already are experiencing an increase in boil-water notices, which has been described as an infrastructure issue compounded by a labor shortage.
USHERing in a new water workforce
The Colorado Water Center’s student fellowship program and USHER, or Urban Systems for Hydro Education and Research, are two initiatives to help expand and diversify the water workforce. Both programs aim to encourage students from historically underrepresented backgrounds to pursue water careers.
Colorado Water Center student fellows, based at CSU’s Fort Collins campus, learn about and work toward water sustainability and environmental justice and equity. The program is supported by donations from water companies and utilities.
USHER expands on the student fellows program and allows the water center to reach Denver-based undergraduate students of color. The program, launched this spring, leverages the unique facilities at CSU Spur’s Hydro building and capitalizes on Hydro’s proximity to the South Platte River and relationship with Denver Water, which houses its water quality lab in the building.
Students in both programs conduct hands-on research and contribute to water-sampling campaigns. Colorado Water Center Associate Director Karen Schlatter and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor José Chávez lead both programs, following the departure of Professor Aditi Bhaskar, who founded USHER.
“The student fellows and USHER programs address both creating a more diverse conversation on water management and expanding the water workforce in Colorado,” Tracy said. “The Spur campus is going to play a critical role in serving both of these needs.”
Tracy explained that including more voices in the dialog about water management is critical to shaping goals and solving problems. “If you don’t include a broad spectrum of voices in the conversation, you’re only going to be serving part of the population,” he said.
Tracy said the Spur campus, where K-12 students can learn about water through fun, hands-on activities like an interactive stream table, will be important in recruiting the future water workforce. Spur, which is free and open to all, makes experiential education around food, health and water accessible to youth in the Denver area.
“If you’re leaving part of society out of the workforce,” he said, “you’re hamstringing yourself.”