Robin Barnes is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Greater New Orleans, Inc. (GNO, Inc.) As the regional economic development organization for Southeast Louisiana, Barnes oversees several major environmental and economic development initiatives. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There have always been “water” jobs. They are a hidden, yet critical, workforce—one that is in place to ensure that the public has potable water and is protected from flooding and other environmental issues. While police and fire workers are rightfully hailed as heroes, water workers are rarely acknowledged for their work and, unfortunately, are seen most often only when an issue occurs.
Nationally, the number of water jobs grew by 18 percent from 2011–2016 compared to a 9.3 percent growth across all industries. Looking specifically at the New Orleans market, you can see the uptick in water jobs following a disaster (in our case, it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
Today, there are nearly 30,000 water jobs in Greater New Orleans. The rate of increase in these jobs over the next 10 years is projected at 14 percent, which is due in large part to the investment of billions of dollars in coastal restoration, flood protection and urban water management.
That does not include the number of job openings expected because of retiring baby boomers—23 percent of our water workforce is 55 or older.
The occupations in this sector range from construction laborers to architects and engineers. The current jobs are not all filled. Water utilities around the country, for example, are feeling the effects of a retiring workforce and a lack of “glamour” in the jobs that they offer.
However, what is not well understood is that these jobs are well-paying career paths, with more than 50 percent not requiring a college degree.
Efforts are underway to enhance training and education for water workers in innovative ways. The Water Environment Federation (WEF) and DC Water have collaborated on the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program, with New Orleans as a partner.
The University of New Orleans, guided by relevant employers, launched a Coastal Engineering and Science Certificate program.
Water management also presents a unique opportunity to address diversity and equity. In New Orleans, there is a stark discrepancy between racial diversity in mid-skilled water occupations compared to high-skilled occupations—with the latter lacking the parity of the former. Dillard University is working with local employers to develop an Urban Water Management Certificate that will prepare students of color for professional opportunities in the field.
With workforce shortfalls growing, highlighting water management occupations as not only good career opportunities but as jobs that are as critical to communities as police officers and fire fighters, is paramount.
This year, the New Orleans region’s two-year colleges (Northshore Technical, Delgado and Fletcher community colleges) will take students to the Netherlands where they will learn how integrated water management can save lives and provide quality of life and economic opportunity.
While citizens across the U.S. were devastated to see major hurricanes hit cities this hurricane season, the hope is that these events will also serve as an unintended good and inspire more people to explore the important and rewarding careers available in water management.