By Courtney Eaton
In this installment of Green Steps, we wanted to highlight a few upcoming initiatives from our very own NEWEA Sustainability Committee. First, a little history of our committee. We started as a standing committee around 2008 when NEWEA members recognized an opportunity to make the operation of NEWEA and specifically NEWEA conferences greener. As the committee gained momentum and support across the organization, the committee shifted its focus from internal operations to promoting the sustainable concepts and processes of external projects and organizations. Today, the committee’s mission is centered on promoting sustainable actions and concepts within the wastewater industry, including raising awareness and providing education about these actions and concepts.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Now back to the initiatives mentioned earlier – in order to keep the conversation around sustainability relevant and relatable to NEWEA’s broad and diverse membership, the committee is set to release a Sustainability Survey in early 2019. Our goal in this survey will be to better understand the general and specific knowledge of the membership related to sustainable topics, as well as to poll members on what topics are most relevant and urgent to our region and industry. Using the survey results, we hope to tailor our sessions and future webinars according to what we hear from you, our members! So be on the lookout – we want your input!
Who within our industry is leading the way in Innovation and Sustainability?
Another initiative that the committee is kicking off is the “Green Steps” Award for Innovation and Sustainability. This award strives to recognize projects or processes within utilities that are innovative and sustainable. Our hope is to highlight organizations within our region that are going above and beyond the traditional approaches to incorporate the tenants of sustainable thinking such as resource efficiency, social awareness and connectivity, and economic viability. We plan to advertise this award at the Annual Conference, and announce and recognize the recipients at the Annual Spring Meeting in June.
What does it mean to have a sustainable work force?
Though not related to a current initiative, the Sustainability Committee wanted to highlight another important topic relevant to the sustainability of our overall industry – Workforce Sustainability. The sustainability of a utility is not just limited to its energy or water efficiency, or even its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. While those areas are important to the overall sustainability of the entity, a utility’s biggest resource, and thus its biggest opportunity for sustainability, one might argue, is its people. But what does it mean have a sustainable workforce?
When defined as “meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future,” sustainability encompasses the environment, society, and the economy. A holistic concept of sustainability recognizes that the three are intricately linked, and that efforts to perpetuate any one of them will impact the other two. Connection among the water industry and society, environment and economy seem pretty obvious. Without clean water, the environment and society cannot function and grow, and business cannot thrive and flourish. So, how does that relate to a sustainable workforce?
One of the biggest challenges facing our industry today is competition for good, competent employees who have an interest and passion for stewardship of our water infrastructure. In the near future, we are projected to see approximately 30% of our water and wastewater utility workers retire. With their exit from the industry, we have the potential to lose all of their institutional knowledge about our industry’s water system, which would leave a number of these systems vulnerable. As just mentioned, this would not only impact the systems themselves, but also the environment, society and economy.
On Nov. 14-15, 2018, over 70 experts in water sector workforce development, including some of our very own from NEWEA, met in Alexandria, Va., to chart a path forward for solving workforce development challenges to ensure Workforce Sustainability. The purpose of this meeting, called “The National Water Workforce Convening”, was to identify specific immediate and long-term challenges with water sector workforce development, and pinpoint actions that should be taken to solve them. The findings of the meeting will be made public in a report expected in the near future, which we plan to highlight in future “Green Steps” and NEWEA newsletters. We see this as a way to share ideas across utilities and organizations, and to highlight the many facets involved in being a Sustainable Organization. It is not all about recycling and turning off the lights!