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Tony Evers, Governor
Amy Pechacek, Secretary-designee
Department of Workforce Development
201 E. Washington Avenue
P.O. Box 7946
Madison, WI 53707-7946
Telephone: (608) 266-3131
Fax: (608) 266-1784
DWD, Water Industry Leaders Share Strategies to Address Workforce Challenges
By Richard P. Jones
MILWAUKEE – Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek and state water industry leaders have a message for job seekers, especially young students: Test the waters and take the plunge! Rewarding careers in water await!
From engineers and plant operators to lab technicians, production workers, and plumbers, water-related job opportunities exist in nearly every community statewide. The Milwaukee metropolitan area alone is home to more than 200 water companies including A. O. Smith and Badger Meter as well as UW-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences, an internationally recognized research hub.
While the worker quantity challenge is affecting almost every industry, the essential nature of many water industry jobs makes workforce development a critical priority for the sector. In Milwaukee, innovative efforts by Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, The Water Council, local workforce development board Employ Milwaukee and other partners are bringing impressive results.
"The need for clean, fresh, affordable water is not ever going away, and with more green technology being introduced as well as the focus on economic, environmental and social sustainability, there’s just so much potential for this industry," said DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek. "With more than 100 participants each year in MMSD's career awareness, career exploration, and career training programs, the district is creating a river of new talent for the sector. This momentum is really exciting."
In advance of World Water Day, celebrated on March 22, Pechacek met with regional water leaders including Kevin Shafer, executive director of MMSD; Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council; Scott Royer, general manager of Veolia Milwaukee; and Claire Evans, human resources operations manager for Badger Meter. Earlier this month, MMSD received $1 million in workforce development funding from the U.S. Department of Labor with assistance from Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee.
Shafer said the district has been investing in a pre-apprenticeship training and placement programs offered by the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership Building Industry Group & Skilled Trades Employment Program (WRTP/BIGSTEP) for more than 20 years. In 2021, 91 apprentices employed by MMSD contractors performed 20% of all the hours worked on district projects.
"Our investment in workforce development is designed to help ensure that MMSD’s future workforce and that of its contracted partners reflect the diversity of the local taxpayers and ratepayers," Shafer said. "At its core, three elements drive success: a portfolio of talent development initiatives along the career continuum targeting historically underrepresented communities; linking talent development initiatives to real career opportunities through application of social responsibility policies to MMSD procurements, and building long term, strategic partnerships with shared outcomes and mutual investment."
The $1 million in U.S. DOL funding will further the district's workforce development efforts, including the Fresh Coast Ambassador program, an entry-level green infrastructure program that introduces young people, ages 14 to 21, to water industry career pathways and on-the-job training in green infrastructure. The Fresh Coast Ambassador program has served a total of 42 individuals since its creation in 2019. In addition to hosting some 35 of its own interns, the district also participates in the Regional Internships in Science and Engineering, an effort that aims to retain talented students in the local area by exposing them to career opportunities at engineering and planning firms and construction contractors.
The water industry workforce development efforts extend to regional career fairs, with two events in 2021 supported by MMSD, Milwaukee Water Works, Veolia Water Milwaukee, Milwaukee Department of Public Works, Milwaukee County Parks, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Amhaus, of The Water Council, said these and other initiatives promise to build a water workforce with the capacity to develop and implement new water technologies.
"People don’t think about water as a career option," Amhaus said. "But one of the things that we know is there’s always going to be a need for jobs in water. It’s an industry that is always going to be there, because it’s just essential, obviously for humans, but also industry and the economy."
Pechacek's meeting with Shafer, Amhaus, and others at the district's South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek also highlighted potential future opportunities, including a new wastewater treatment process the district is piloting and a $400 million Milwaukee harbor and river cleanup project. Even before those opportunities have become available, Evans of Badger Meter and Royer of Veolia said they have openings from production workers to engineers.
"While our origins are in water metering, we continue to innovate with new offerings that include water quality monitoring and software solutions for customers," Evans said. She said the company's high-tech products measure the flow of water and water quality, allowing continuous monitoring to ensure, for example, that municipal water systems are safe and secure.
Royer said tours of Jones Island, the water reclamation facility that Veolia operates for MMSD, are one way to introduce youth to the idea of working in the water industry. The facility offers tours and hosts about 5,000 visitors a year with the majority focused on students from fifth grade through college.
Pechacek credited the water partners for their regional collaboration and emphasized that helpful tools and resources offered by DWD are available to employers throughout the state, including: the Job Center of Wisconsin, connections with the regional Workforce Development Boards, Wisconsin Apprenticeship, and Youth Apprenticeship opportunities. DWD's regional business services representatives and Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services also can help employers engage with underutilized labor pools including veterans and job seekers with disabilities.
Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development efficiently delivers effective and inclusive services to meet Wisconsin's diverse workforce needs now and for the future. The department advocates for and invests in the protection and economic advancement of all Wisconsin workers, employers and job seekers through six divisions – Employment and Training, Vocational Rehabilitation, Unemployment Insurance, Equal Rights, Worker's Compensation and Administrative Services. To keep up with DWD announcements and information, sign up for news releases and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.