Water and Wastewater Operators/Managers Survey Indicates Room for Improvement

The Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute (KWRRI) recently collaborated with the Division of Water’s Operator Recruitment and Development Committee to survey Kentucky’s water workforce and managers. The survey was intended to bring any operator recruitment and development issues to the forefront, to get a better understanding of recruitment and retention challenges, and to help decision-makers better understand operator challenges.

The two anonymous surveys were completed May 3 to June 2, 2022 and received a combined 635 responses. Both surveys reflected operator retention and recruitment challenges.

Some of the survey findings include:

  • 55% of responding operators and 56% of responding managers said their utility does not have enough operators. 65% of wastewater managers responded their utility does not have enough operators.
  • 72% of managers replied that operators left the job for better pay in another job opportunity or were recruited by other utilities.
  • 39% of operators and 38% of managers responded they were somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with the pay.
  • The aggregated median hourly wage earned by responding operators at large systems was $25 and $23 for small systems. The median hourly wage expected by responding operators at large systems was $32 and $30 for small systems.
  • The hourly entry-level pay by drinking water utilities was $10 to $50 with the average of $17.92 and median hourly rate of $16. For wastewater utilities, the hourly entry-level was $10 to $27 with the average rate of $16.60 and the median hourly rate of $16.50.
  • 76% of operators like the tasks they do at work and 54% of operators were extremely happy or somewhat happy at work.

Retention issues include impacts from COVID, a lack of adequate pay, consistent benefits and employee appreciation, as well as succession planning. Recruitment concerns include a lack of qualified applicants, adequate pay and benefits, effective recruitment strategies, and lack of training or apprentice programs.

The demographics of the surveyed respondents were primarily white and male, at proportions higher than Kentucky demographics. Minority populations and women are underrepresented, possibly due to a lack of recruitment.

As a result of the findings, several recommendations are being made and are expected to be shared by the Recruitment and Development Committee and utilities.

These include:

  • Assist drinking water and wastewater utilities in recruiting and retaining qualified staff.
  • Support policies that enable increasing compensation of water utility operators.
  • Consider development of a decision-maker training program for all utilities.
  • Provide tools and support for management to help address recruitment issues.
  • Provide case studies on effective regionalization and consolidation strategies.
  • Develop a template for an effective utility communication plan to improve employee, stakeholder, and public interaction during normal operating and emergency situations.
  • Research and develop more effective marketing strategies and techniques to advertise vacant positions.

“With the additional investment to water infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it is more important than ever that we address these recruitment and retention challenges,” said Amanda LeFevre, deputy commissioner of Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection. “Investments in the people who maintain Kentucky’s water infrastructure must also be made. These professionals are the backbone of our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, providing critical services to the people of Kentucky.”