As US infrastructure crumbles and water supplies dwindle, the cities that are leading deployment of distributed water solutions are finding an economic upside to their water woes– new businesses and new jobs. Distributed water systems save water by treating and reusing water onsite, and those systems require a new breed of engineers. In addition to the almost 300,000 workers that are needed for the US’s existing water systems, onsite water systems will require certified mobile engineers to maintain distributed systems in offices, stores, hospitals and other commercial and residential buildings.
“Historically, the average U.S. water utility control system specialist was a high school graduate with an Associate’s degree, supplemented by years of on-the-job training,” notes David Roberts Associate Vice President and National Practice Leader for Automation Services at engineering giant Black & Veatch.
Distributed systems will require both the technical skills necessary for maintaining water treatment systems inside a water plant as well as higher-level client support skills and operational precision in dynamic environments. The timing of distributed water systems is particularly suited for the water industry, where 30-50% of the executives in water utilities are scheduled for retirement over the next 3-5 years. After massive expansion of water infrastructure in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we are faced with an aging physical infrastructure as well as an aging workforce.“Promotions and advancement were the results of a combination of experience accumulated over time, along with skills examinations and certification requirements. This essentially created an industry of ‘experienced specialists’ whose breadth of knowledge cannot be found in any written manual.” Concern about these retirements and the associated “brain drain” are driving joint initiatives to recruit military veterans and other experienced engineers. The task of replacing those key operators is set to present another challenge, and a risk, for US water systems.
How many jobs in modernizing water infrastructure?
The towns and the businesses that move early to implement distributed systems may see the same kinds of jobs and economic growth that the solar and wind industries have generated in early-mover markets like Texas and California. The businesses that build the first onsite water systems are positioned to equip neighboring areas with those solutions and grow rapidly. According to the Solar Foundation, the solar industry has outpaced most sectors of the US economy, adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1.2% of all jobs created in the U.S., resulting in over 115,000 new domestic living-wage jobs.