As Congress focuses on investing in our nation’s aging infrastructure and creating good-paying jobs, Rep. Greg Stanton reintroduced his bill to help grow an in-demand sector of Arizona’s workforce: wastewater management. The municipal drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management sector is facing extremely high turnover rates without enough skilled workers to replace them. Stanton’s bill aims to shrink that gap in Arizona.?
“As Arizona’s population continues to grow, our economy relies on effective and well-run wastewater treatment and stormwater management programs. And we need more skilled workers to make sure those systems are operated properly to protect public health and the environment,” said Stanton. “These are exactly the type of long-term career positions—with good wages, healthcare and retirement benefits—that we ought to be investing in as we rebuild our economy.”
The high rate of retirement and aging workforce in the sector are placing pressure on utilities throughout the country to find the next generation of workers to replace them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the median age of water employees is 48 years, and 30 to 50 percent of these workers will be eligible to retire within the next 5 to 10 years.?
Stanton’s bill, the Wastewater Workforce Investment Act, would require the EPA to report to Congress on the workforce needs for publicly owned treatment works, including the number of future positions and technical skills needed. Additionally, it would allow states to reserve up to one percent of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) dollars it receives each year from the federal government to be used for workforce development, training and retraining activities.?
This year, Arizona received nearly $11 million in Clean Water SRF dollars from the EPA. Stanton’s bill would allow the state to reserve approximately $100,000 each fiscal year for workforce development in the sector.?
“In Phoenix, I witnessed first-hand the value of development and training programs to get our residents equipped with the skills they need to secure quality jobs,” said the former Phoenix mayor. “These public works jobs are in every city and county in Arizona and across the nation—these are long-term career positions that offer employees and families excellent healthcare and retirement benefits.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be an estimated 75,000 to 80,000 jobs available within utilities over the next four years—jobs that cannot be outsourced and are largely immune to economic downturns. These are STEM jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree and pay family-sustaining wages.
Across Arizona, utilities are struggling to fill these open positions. According to a 2020 American Society of Civil Engineers Arizona Infrastructure Report Card, “up to 15% of additional staffing or workforce replacement is needed” to meet the needs of Arizona’s growing population. The report goes on to say detailed disparities between large, urban utilities and smaller, rural ones, saying, “Out of 50% of public utilities evaluated, an average of two [Operations and Management] staff openings remains unfilled annually. That may equate to 2% to 5% of staff for larger utilities but could equate to 25% of smaller utilities.”
Stanton’s bill could have an especially significant impact on rural Arizona communities, which use Clean Water SRF dollars for critical wastewater infrastructure projects but lack the local workforce needed to operate them.