An Alternative Approach to Dealing with the Retiring 30% of the Water Workforce

July 30, 2020


It is not news to anyone who is involved in the utility industry that the workforce is retiring at a rate that the utility is unable to replace. In the water industry, it is projected that 30% of the workforce will be retiring over the next few years. According to the Brookings Institute, 1.7M people were involved in the operation, design, governing and management of U.S. water infrastructure. That means ~600k of those resources will be lost to retirement with no clear sight of replacement. That is a trend. We cannot reverse the fact that baby boomers are growing old and leaving the workforce in droves. We also cannot train enough people in time to replace these soon to be retired workers. And we absolutely do not want to train new employees in old approaches that do not factor in the changing nature of integrated enterprise management that is needed for the future utility

Along with this retirement trend, baby boomers and their ilk (the bulk of the retiring workforce) are showing signs of a counter-trend that will work in the utility’s favor and stem the tide of retirements. This trend is the unwillingness or inability of the boomer population to retire completely. They are taking up new careers and learning new skills to enable them to continue to earn an income post-retirement from careers they’ve been in for decades. ‘Advances in longevity are making supporting retirement for another 20 to 30 years impossible for 90 percent of all U.S. workers.’. This might be more than just a trend and might actually be in response to a recognition that there are health benefits to working ‘post-retirement’ because research shows that there is an 11% reduction in lower all-cause mortality for by adopting a ‘second act’.

It is at the convergence of these trends that I believe there is a chance for the utility industry to reskill or upskill some of the 30% that is projected to retire. Extending their time in the workforce by providing them new skills in areas like product design, especially for web or mobile products that will become more in use, and partnering them with younger more recent graduates of design/anthropology (i.e. skills that we currently don’t utilize in the industry) we can fire new synapses that, combined with the experience that these employees have, will benefit the utility and extend the time we have to bring in new employees. We do have to watch out for ‘educated incapacity’, where the employees already ‘know how it’s done’ and have no willingness to change. In such instances, we will have to accept that it might be time for that employee to retire because they might not be interested in new knowledge. 

Knowledge is the new currency in the new economy where technology augments and amplifies abilities. It is time for us to avoid losing out on the skills and implicit knowledge that our people have and augment them to create a future utility that works for all involved.