By Katie Zheng, TWU Planning Manager
The impact of COVID-19 on our community and economy is undeniable, with Texas experiencing a record high unemployment rate of 13.0% as of June of this year. During this time of crisis, jobs in essential services are in high demand and are more important than ever. We urge those who are seeking employment, particularly women, to consider applying for positions in the water industry. Water is critical to our health and safety in good times, and in bad.
I saw firsthand the importance of clean, reliable water during a crisis many years ago. When I was young, there was an explosion that led to a benzene spill at a petrochemical plant upstream from my hometown in Northeast China, and it contaminated our major source of surface water. Four million people didn’t have access to the municipal water system for five days until the pollutant concentrations in the river had declined below permissible levels. I watched a group of engineers and scientists clean the river and restore potable water to our community and was inspired by their admirable work. I decided in that moment to pursue environmental engineering. Now we are facing a global crisis and are relying on utility workers to keep safe, reliable water running during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first step in preventing the spread of the virus is to wash hands thoroughly. Without our precious resource, this is difficult to do.
The Texas water industry faces a looming workforce shortage, especially for workers involved in the daily operations of water and wastewater plants. As a generation of water and wastewater operators near retirement and new development continues in Texas, it could become more difficult and costly to provide safe drinking water and to protect the state waterways from pollutants if we don’t recruit new talent to our industry.
As the co-chair of the Workforce Development Committee at the Water Environment Association of Texas (WEAT), I work to promote water career awareness across the state. Our goal is to support a diverse range of people entering the water utility workforce at multiple stages in order to create a “pipeline” of water workers.
As a female engineer, I have frequently been the only woman in the room during meetings. Overall, women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and the water utility sector remains male-dominated. A recent report by the World Bank’s Water Global Practice reveals that less than one in five water workers are women, and that only 18% of technical and leadership roles in the sector’s workforce are held by women. Fortunately, the water industry is encouraging women and diverse workers to get involved in STEM fields and assume leadership roles. I urge women to join professional organizations and mentorship programs that support these efforts.
For those interested in working in the water sector, many high schools and community colleges offer on-the-job training programs that are accredited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Now is an opportune time for students and new graduates to explore these programs as water operators are essential workers who can earn competitive wages, face lower educational barriers to entry, develop extensive knowledge and cross-disciplinary skills, and have the ability to work independently in the field. Given the current public health crisis, providing clean water is more important than ever and now is a good time to pursue a career in the water industry where people can make a difference. While over two million Texans are facing unemployment, SouthWest Water Company is hiring and committed to keeping employees safe and healthy. I hope that the tireless efforts of our frontline workers during this crisis will inspire professionals across the state to join our industry in the same way they inspired me.