Gwinnett Water Tower to help increase staffing among water utilities

A Gwinnett innovation center for the water utility sector has launched a program to help address staffing shortages plaguing the vital industry.

The Water Tower, located in Buford, is a think tank and incubator that works to support water utility companies through research, technology, workforce development and community engagement. Through the pilot program, tower officials hope the new Water Workforce for Resilient Communities program will help underserved communities and decrease the staffing shortage.

The program is funded through the federal pandemic stimulus program known as the American Rescue Plan Act. It offers two tracks: an eight-month work-study program for high school seniors and a concentrated four-month program for those who would participate full-time.

Water treatment and distribution systems are vital to human life, public health and industry. The maintenance and expansion of waterworks facilities is labor intensive and expensive, and high-profile failures of water networks in cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan, have underscored the importance of water infrastructure.

It’s estimated that water utilities will lose up to 50% of operations staff in the next five to 10 years, an announcement said. Kristan VandenHeuvel, director of applied research and engagement for the innovation center, said that a looming retirement wave will cause worker shortages, but there are other factors, including the pandemic.

“For this program specifically, with the pandemic and just this incredible staffing shortage that’s been going on for years now and is only increasing, we found it was a good opportunity to help address both of these issues,” VandenHeuvel said. “Not only helping those who lost their jobs due to COVID and due to the pandemic, but also helping their communities by placing them at utilities that really need skilled candidates.”

After completing the program, participants will be placed in water utilities jobs in Gwinnett and across North Georgia.

“The water industry has one of the highest starting salaries for trade positions across the board,” VandenHeuvel said.

Starting last week, the program had three participants. By the end of 2023, VandenHeuvel says the facility would like to train and place at least 30 people in water utilities jobs.