Consider the potential of water utility jobs

Good field with tremendous equity possibilities

“WHEN I GROW UP, I want to be a wastewater operator.” That is probably not a commonly heard sentiment, but we think it should be, especially for our young people who have been historically marginalized.

When it comes to “green jobs,” typically it’s the clean energy industry – solar or offshore wind – that comes to mind. Yet there are thousands of good-paying jobs related to the delivery of clean water, disposal of wastewater, and management of stormwater. And right now there is a near-crisis as more people — generally older white men — are retiring from these water, wastewater, and stormwater jobs than are entering them. Retirement eligibility in the water utility world is estimated to be as high as 30 to 50 percent.

These are solid jobs, paying good salaries and benefits, and Massachusetts can do much more to lower the barriers so that especially our young people of color, from disadvantaged backgrounds, know about these jobs and the pathways to access them.

The incoming Biden administration is expected to work with the US Congress to pass an infrastructure bill. Massachusetts should make sure we get our fair share, as our needs are dire. It is not uncommon to find water and sewer pipes in many of our cities and towns that date back to the 1800s. Hundreds of our dams no longer serve their historic purpose and are security hazards, in need of removal.

A 2016 survey of municipalities by the office of State Auditor Suzanne Bump found that our communities have combined water system spending needs in excess of $17 billion, including $7.24 billion for clean water delivery, $8.99 billion for wastewater treatment and handling, and $1.58 billion for stormwater management. Ominously, survey respondents also reported very little attention being paid to the increased vulnerability of water infrastructure to climate change, which means the actual funding gap is likely much higher if our goal is to build resilient communities.

We have identified the needs. We can lobby vociferously for the funding. But we must also put equity front and center as we rebuild our water systems. A recent Brookings report found these jobs are held not just by older people, but that racial and gender diversity is largely absent. Applying an equity lens means proactive outreach to women, people of color, individuals leaving the prison system – those who have been systematically shut out of good employment opportunities due to historical, systemic racism or discrimination.

Applying this equity lens is what the “Green New Deal” is all about – not merely taking action to address climate change, but ensuring that as we move toward a more sustainable world the benefits of green jobs; increased investment in clean energy industries; and clean air, clean water, and open space are shared by all, particularly those that have been most harmed by environmental racism.

Fortunately, there are several existing programs that have demonstrated success with helping disadvantaged youths gain a foothold in the water management industry. US EPA’s “Youth in Environment” program gives four to six school students from Lowell and Lawrence summer internships at the Lowell and Lawrence Wastewater Treatment plants.  Daily responsibilities include everything from painting and plumbing to collecting BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) samples and learning about the overall treatment process and the wastewater plant.

Students take field trips to places such as the New England Aquarium, Squam Lake, and Boston’s Deer Island Treatment Facility. Program graduates have gone on to pursue environmental studies in college, while others are employed in various trades.

Another program is Boston’s X-Cel Conservation Corps. X-Cel breaks the cycle of poverty by preparing Boston youth for careers in water management and conservation that lead to economic self-sufficiency through training and paid conservation projects. Program participants receive valuable work experience partnering on water conservation projects with groups such as the Charles River Watershed Association, while also attending classes to prepare them to pass the Massachusetts Grade Two Municipal Wastewater Operator’s License exam.

When necessary, corps members get support to help them obtain their high school equivalency credential, learner’s permit, and driving license.  Once they obtain their Wastewater Operator’s License, corps members are placed into paid internships at wastewater treatment plants to obtain hands-on experience in the field, leading to well-paying jobs in the water management field.

The P-TECH program is a successful model in the area of STEM that could be expanded to include water management. Founded in 2011 by IBM and now involving over 600 industry partners, it targets underserved populations to better prepare a workforce for “new collar” jobs — skilled, tech positions that don’t necessarily require a traditional, four-year college degree.

P-TECH students earn their high school diploma and an associate’s degree aligned to industry needs, while receiving paid mentorship and paid internships, within six years or less, and are first in line for employment with an industry partner. P-TECH is in schools in 11 states, but not Massachusetts, though the program is interested in expanding here.

Brandon Siah is a graduate of the X-Cel program. A Boston native, Brandon was valedictorian of his 2018 class at Dorchester Academy, but in spite of this he struggled in college. He found his way to the X-Cel Conservation Corps and from then secured an internship and then job with Woodard and Curran. He feels confident about his future, and his own abilities, and it was the X-Cel program that did that for him.

There are thousands of Brandons out there. Let’s invest in the programs that give them the boost they need because when they succeed, we all win.

Aaron Dale is program coordinator of X-Cel Conservation Corps and Emily Norton is executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.