Water Sector Needs to Attract Young Talent

One of the UK water sector’s ‘rising stars’ has called on the industry to find new ways to attract young talent in order to tackle urgent social and environmental challenges. That was the message of the latest Water Action Platform webinar from technology consultancy Isle - which sought to uncover the views of younger people coming into the water sector, delve into the challenges they face, as well as celebrate their achievements across the world.
Water Sector Needs to Attract Young Talent

Alisha Syal (Image source: Isle)

The event also featured interviews with Siddhartha Roy, an environmental engineer and research scientist who rose to prominence as a result of his work on the Flint water crisis, and Bob Taylor, chief executive of Portsmouth Water. This special edition of the webinar was hosted by Isle technology consultant Alisha Syal, one of the UK’s Institute of Water’s Rising Stars - an initiative designed to develop the skills and professional excellence of new industry talent. The water sector has “tremendous potential to benefit society and the environment,” she said, but has a reputation for being “set in its ways.” An injection of younger workers is needed to meet the complex challenges that lie ahead, she added.

Facing the future
An ageing workforce has been listed as one of the top ten issues facing the water sector today, according to American Water Works Association (AWWA) State of the Water Industry (SOTWI) Report in 2020. In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency, states that in the next ten years it is projected that 37% of water utility workers and 31% of wastewater utility workers will retire. At present just 1.7% of workers in the US water sector are younger than 25, and in the UK just 8% of all water workers are under 24.

“Different generations can learn from each other and ultimately make better informed and forward-thinking decisions,” said Syal. "Why is this important? Well, last year all around the world one-in-four people lacked safely-managed drinking water, and 3.6 billion people lacked safely-managed sanitation services, and 2.3 billion people lack basic hygiene services. “Now, with added factors like population growth, we need to keep up with the ever-expanding need for sustainable water supply and sanitation,” she said. “It’s about collaboration.”

Leveraging youthful idealism
In an exclusive interview, Roy discussed his own journey in the water sector, how he faced accusations of ‘youthful idealism’ and gave advice to young water professionals.

“So many young people get into this field so that we can be of use to society and uphold their health and wellbeing – so to be accused of youthful idealism is bizarre. The first tenet of civil engineering is to put the safety and welfare of the public at the heart. I think that’s idealism at its best and what is we all should be striving for.” In 2015, as a graduate student at Virgina Tech, Roy played an instrumental role in uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. This public health crisis left tens of thousands of Flint residents exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their water supply and has become a signature case of environmental injustice. In his advice for younger water professionals, Roy impressed the importance of communications, and the need to be able to work with multiple stakeholders, as well as being willing to gain knowledge across many different fields.

The three key takeaways he wanted younger water workers to consider were:

  • Develop your competence and be useful: always be eager to learn, and share this knowledge, for example, in teams and at conferences, so you are contributing to solving problems.
  • Be curious and ask for help and advice from experts in your field so you can get to where you want to: If someone is doing what you want to do, reach out – it´s more than networking, it´s about understanding what they did, who they know and what drives them
  • Pay it forward – be generous with sharing your own knowledge and information that could be useful to others.

Benefits of a younger workforce – a CEO perspective
Bob Taylor, chief executive of Portsmouth Water, was interviewed by Syal about the benefits of having a young workforce, and how to attract and retain young people in the water sector. He said, “The advantage of having a young workforce is that you’ve got people coming in to replace and replenish an ageing workforce. In addition, young people come with a different mindset, a different skillset and different angles on important topics. While you are not going to get young people fresh out of university that have the same knowledge and experience as seasoned workers, it’s clear younger people of today learn quickly and are used to being inquisitive. Water companies need new ideas, ways of thinking, and innovation, and young people can offer these fresh perspectives.”

Portsmouth Water, based in southern England, is leading the way when it comes to age diversity in its workforce, explained Taylor. The water company has set up a board of Future Innovators, comprised of younger employees charged with delivering specific projects, such as the company’s programme of community work.

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