From Talent to Technology: Maximizing Efficiency to Improve Wastewater Operations


  • Kyle Funk
July 14, 2023 - (4 min read)

To support local governments in strengthening workforce capacity for wastewater monitoring and water systems, NLC convened an expert panel for an open learning session to discuss strategies and innovative solutions to improve disease surveillance. From recruiting, retaining and advancing equity in the local workforce (while strengthening water system capacity), panelists shared considerations for city leaders looking to optimize wastewater operations drawing insights from local government and industry experiences. Following are some ideas panelists shared with session attendees.

Maximize Workforce Efficiency

Strengthen the aging workforce. Municipalities face the dual challenge of an aging workforce and a shortage of qualified applicants for wastewater monitoring positions. City leaders can streamline application processes and invest in innovative recruitment, training, and professional development strategies to attract and retain skilled individuals such as Washington, D.C.’s Green Fellows Leadership and Development Program. In addition, apprenticeship programs through partnerships with local universities can provide pathways for young individuals to enter the wastewater industry and gain valuable experience.

Build a deep bench. Establishing a deep bench of skilled employees capable of handling unexpected staffing changes is vital. A well-crafted succession plan plays a pivotal role in ensuring operational stability, even in the face of unforeseen circumstances. This involves ongoing evaluation of succession strategies, identifying and nurturing potential leaders, and providing staff development opportunities.

Promote resilience and inclusivity in workforce development. Embracing diversity enhances resilience and brings together multiple perspectives, skills, and experiences. Tommy Wells, D.C.’s director of policy and legislative affairs notes that “diversity really builds resilience, and diversity for utilities like DC Water is a real strength of a pipeline for developing great employees.”

Enhance employee engagement and empowerment. Actively seek input from staff through surveys to inform policies and procedures that prioritize employee well-being. Recognizing and rewarding employee contributions, providing flexible schedules, and offering opportunities for career advancement can significantly boost employee morale and retention.

Align strategic goals with workforce development. Municipalities can consider aligning their strategic goals with workforce development efforts. Setting key performance indicators and connecting them to the critical work done by staff can ensure that workforce capacity aligns with organizational objectives. Regularly monitoring and evaluating progress will enable city leaders to make informed decisions and adapt their workforce strategies accordingly.

Ensure community support. Fostering transparent communication channels, especially during emergencies, is paramount — boil water alerts, for example. By ensuring that alerts promptly reach affected areas and providing timely updates, city leaders can instill confidence and trust in the community, ultimately shaping positive public perception. Open and proactive communication, combined with showcasing the necessity of a well-staffed workforce, allows leaders to demonstrate their commitment to transparency, leading to a better understanding and cooperation from the public.

Embrace Technological Advancements

Use technology strategically. Municipalities are presented with many technologies for optimizing wastewater operations, including real-time data sensors, digital modeling technologies, and remote monitoring. Adam Cartwright, head of IoT applications at Siemens UK, noted during the webinar that “what we’re talking about is change management with a large amount of digital technology … when you think about new things to do, you need to start off with the value.” This advice highlights the significance of considering value and implementing change management practices while embracing technology for wastewater optimization.

Unleash the power of remote monitoring. Remote monitoring is a powerful tool that can help utilities address workforce challenges. By using cameras and sensors for flow, level monitoring, and rain gauges, operators can gain real-time insights into wastewater systems without needing to physically visit every site. Remote monitoring enables operators to allocate their time more efficiently and prioritize corrective actions based on data.

Leverage virtual work arrangements. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of embracing virtual work options to optimize workforce capacity. This includes reevaluating the need for on-site presence and adopting virtual meetings and collaboration tools to boost productivity while maintaining the value of human judgment and decision-making.

Learn More

Want to learn more about strengthening workforce capacity for wastewater monitoring and water systems? NLC members can watch the webinar from which this content is sourced in its entirety anytime, on demand.

About the Author

Kyle Funk

About the Author

Kyle Funk is a Senior Program Specialist on Infrastructure, Transportation and Solutions at the National League of Cities.