Technology offers the water industry a sustainable way to beat challenges like drought. Could it also help reverse a looming shortage of talent? Only if we get busy, says Victoria Edwards.
As if flooding and drought were not enough to contend with, the water sector is facing major challenges in recruitment and retention.
The median age of water workers in the US is now around 50, while in the UK nearly half the contractor workforce is even older.
Large numbers left the industry during the pandemic and around a third of those left will be eligible for retirement in around a decade.
Coming on top of the realisation that water is the key factor in adapting to climate change, this is a pretty disastrous state of affairs.
I’ve long advocated the use of innovative and disruptive clean technologies in responding to climactic challenges. With accelerated adoption and imagination, I believe it could help transform the appeal of the sector to new entrants too.
Ease the pressure on people
The first and most obvious way is to ease the pressure on existing jobs. Tech can relieve people of drudgery and free them up for more productive tasks.
But this is currently not happening fast enough in much of the water sector globally. There are multiple reasons for this, which I’ve discussed before – the need for a framework including incentives, collaboration and external expertise to name a few.
But there’s an important emotional element we urgently need to address as well.
I don’t think we have done enough in either industry – either water or tech – to really sell tech in a way which convinces existing workers of the benefits to them, their wider colleagues and society itself.
Nearly 25 years ago, the OECD published a book entitled 21st Century Technologies, Promises and Perils of a Dynamic Future. It highlighted that our potential for technology-led prosperity and performance could clash with societies’ readiness to embrace economic, social and technical change.
The generational issue
That’s because people are instinctively self-protective and that’s particularly true of a certain generation which makes up a significant part of the workforce.
Those over-50s now giving us such a fright about skills are in Generation X, born between the 1960s and start of the 1980s. Whether or not you agree it’s right, or even possible, to segment generations like this, there are some truths about people born in this time frame. I am one of them.
We were young when mobile phones, personal computers and the Internet were introduced. Many of us entered the workforce as it went digital. We retain analogue skills which are still valuable, but maybe not for much longer. You can see why overcoming their resistance is important.
For this generation at least, we need to be much clearer about how technology does not replace human intuition, but extends, enhances and enables it.
Part of this means giving them the tools to be able to understand its potential, use it easily and assess it fairly – for good or bad.
A common language
Let’s face it, not all technology is useful. Developers and entrepreneurs are not infallible.
It would be a great start if technology providers and adopters talked a common language which considered the end user as much as the investor and MD. The word ‘disruptive’ sounds top-down and aggressive, while ‘dynamic change’ is much more consensual and passive.
Of course at any given time there are up to four generations in the workforce and the others are much more at ease with digital communication and data-sharing.
For these, the recruitment and retention value of tech is also to demonstrate the creds of a modern, exciting, appealing work environment.
And this, for me, is where it gets really interesting. At the current age of about 10, the upcoming Generation Alpha is still too early to assess in many respects, but in terms of technology they are going to be the most expectant and literate we have ever seen.
The Alpha generation
These are the people with the power and drive to save us from the impending skills gap. And what are they doing now? Gaming.
This is very relevant, and the true innovators are already cottoning on. Serious gaming is already being used to educate and drive change in the water sector. Using gamification, we can do even more than just attract new talent. We can harness the power of the crowd to ease resourcing issues as well.
True gamification, as we are innovating at FIDO AI, can engage workers and consumers in a communal crowd-powered drive to collect data and give communities meaningful agency in the issues which affect them directly.
And there’s one more thing about newer generations. They care deeply about the environment. We are pushing at an open door. Hook them with tech. Reel them in with the environment.
The water sector could not be better placed. Are you with me?