Mind the Gap: Preparing for the Wave of Change in Water Process Operator Demographics

Updated: 7 days ago

According to the United States’ Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 10,500 openings for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators are projected for each year of the next decade. Although there are lots of opportunities to enter the job market in the water sector, the Bureau also projects employment decline of at least 3% from 2020 to 2030. Data USA projects the lowest number of operators to hit the sector around 2026.

A graph shows the estimated decline in water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators in the United States, with the estimated job growth projection over the next 10 years at -4.27%.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, via DataUSA.

Replacing workers that have retired or left the water industry for other opportunities, as well as onboarding and training new workers, will become increasingly important in order to keep critical water processes at municipal, industrial, commercial, and desalination plants flowing smoothly.


The Pani platform can help operators, managers, and executives prepare for the wave of change in worker demographics that will take place over the next ten years. How? That’s a great question.


Pani as a knowledge keeper and sharer

As more operators reach retirement and others leave the water sector in pursuit of other opportunities, a big problem is brewing. With each system having its own specifications and quirks, the industry’s inside joke of being 40% science, 60% art is no laughing matter for operators that are just starting out. Getting to know how the system works requires more than reading equipment manuals and component specifications – it requires an intimate knowledge of how changes, large and small, expected and unpredictable, affect that particular system’s processing capacity and ability to function.


Much of this knowledge lives in the heads and lived experiences of current operators. Extracting and documenting that knowledge to easily share with recent hires is a task in itself. As the existing pool of operators in the water sector gets smaller, the gap in knowledge retention and transfer is widening.


Facilities that have adopted digital technology like the Pani platform are able to document and safeguard some of the knowledge that has historically only been gained through years of experience on the job. The platform uses data gathered and inputted by operators and sensors to learn about the system. During initial setup of the platform, users first create the same types of log sheets, metrics, and other key performance indicators (KPIs) they're already familiar with in a digital format, documenting some of their workflows and processes using their specific goals and vernacular. This cuts down on retraining when first learning to use Pani and also makes training new staff a much smoother process.


The artificial intelligence algorithms built into the Pani tool then run simulations that can help operators compare different parameters to adjust set points and optimize processes. Any given system’s performance quirks will be learned over time by the platform, helping both novice and experienced operators keep and share the information they have about how to best manage it to meet the facility’s production and compliance targets.


Attracting the millennial operator with Pani

In the United States, 30 to 50% of water and wastewater operators will be eligible for retirement in the next five to ten years. This will leave a significant number of job openings in the sector, and this trend goes beyond just the US. At the same time a new generation of employees, the millennial generation, is rapidly becoming the largest in the labour force and attracting new operators to the water sector will be necessary in order to keep this critical infrastructure running.


Growing up during the early days of the internet, smart devices, and “there’s an app for that” mentality, millennial workers will easily adapt to the emerging technological shift in the industry, thanks to the water sector’s ongoing digital transformation.

By adopting tools like digital twin technology, facilities and hiring managers can attract new employees to the sector and stave off the hardest impacts of the “silver tsunami” as more legacy operators retire and take their decades of experience and knowledge with them. They can also make it easier for that knowledge transfer to occur through tools that facilitate the mentorship and training of new staff. Using artificial intelligence can help employees save time, while also increasing productivity and efficiency through better decision-making, enabling the water industry to work towards higher worker satisfaction and retention rates at treatment facilities.


Pani as a recruitment, training, and retention tool

Starting any new job can be overwhelming; starting a new job within critical infrastructure like water treatment has the potential to be stressful. In fact, low job satisfaction is another contributing factor to the shrinking workforce. Between learning all of the tips and tricks of the trade to stay safe and get the job done, being bombarded with vast amounts of plant data to analyze and interpret, and having various industry-dependent KPIs to maintain, new operators need all the help they can get to manage drinking from the firehose.


For the newly minted water treatment plant operators out there, Pani can also serve as a great onboarding and training tool. Because of the platform's easy-to-use intuitive interface, new staff members can quickly familiarize themselves with plant sensors, KPIs, and baseline metrics for things like normal plant functioning and asset health.


The platform’s artificial intelligence features, including Forecasting, Insights, and the AI Coach(TM), deliver simple instructions and alerts to coach (see what we did there?) operators about what to adjust, when, and how, enabling them to feel confident in their decisions when it comes to cleaning, maintenance, and even process optimization. Built-in user permissions and security features also work to keep access under control, ensuring that team members won’t bite off more than they can chew as they get up to speed.

Especially as the demographics of the average operator continues to change over the coming five years, empowering teams to use simple-to-implement tools already available will be a great asset in both recruitment and staff retention efforts.


Of course, nothing could replace the need for operators at plants. But managers and leadership can adopt tools like the Pani platform to manage workforce changes and ensure team members can adjust to the ever-increasing demands of the job more easily. Not only will this attract new talent, keep existing talent, and make knowledge transfer more streamlined between the two, but it will also help plants operate with lower risks, costs, and employee turnover.


If you're interested in adopting Pani as a solution at your water or wastewater treatment facility, you can get started today or book a demo with our team to learn more.

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