WASHINGTON -- The National Rural Water Association, the nation's largest water utility association with more than 31,000 members, today formerly announced a partnership with the United States Department of Labor (DOL) to launch a nation-wide apprenticeship program. The WaterPro Apprenticeship Program, tailored to water and wastewater system operations specialists, is now a nationally-recognized standard with the DOL.

Twelve NRWA state affiliates jointly made the announcement at training events for water and wastewater operations specialists as they look to register their own programs with NRWA's national guideline standard. The announcements and events commemorate National Apprenticeship Week 2017, which is recognized November 13-19, and highlight the need for a national water sector apprenticeship initiative.

"The WaterPro Apprenticeship Program will ensure a well-trained and capable water sector workforce to meet the increasing demands of the water industry," said NRWA CEO Sam Wade. "Advancements in water treatment and supply technology have increased the skills and training needed to protect public health and the environment. The apprenticeship program will ensure we have the skilled and educated workforce we need well into the future."

CoBank, a cooperative bank serving agribusinesses, rural infrastructure providers and Farm Credit associations throughout the United States, will underwrite $250,000 to help establish the program.

"We are extremely excited for the NRWA and their new WaterPro Apprenticeship Program," said Chris Shaffner, CoBank's sector vice president for water and community facilities banking. "Recruiting and retaining highly talented individuals for the future workforce of America's rural water systems is vital as the industry underpins the agricultural economy and the lives of those living in rural America."

It takes more than 380,000 highly skilled water and wastewater personnel to ensure the public supply of safe drinking water and to protect our lakes, streams and groundwater. Advancements in water treatment and supply technology have increased the skills and training required of this workforce. Water professionals are responsible for meeting stringent regulatory standards, replacing aging infrastructure, recruiting and training new operations specialists, and responding to and recovering from disasters.

In addition to increasing professional demands, utilities will soon be forced to replace many of their most experienced employees. Over the next decade, the water sector is expected to lose between 30 and 50 percent of the workforce to retirement. Many of these employees have worked at the same utility for the majority of their careers, and they will depart with decades of valuable institutional knowledge.