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WVU to help fill need for water workforce in Appalachian communities

A photo showing people looking at a holding tank in a wastewater facility.

With more than half of West Virginia’s water sector employees reaching retirement age within the next decade, a WVU paid summer internship program will help train entry-level workers from disadvantaged rural communities for good jobs at water utilities. (Submitted Photo)

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Economically distressed McDowell County is one target of a West Virginia University program to connect high school and community college students and others new to the workforce with well-paid jobs in the water sector, which is in urgent need of workers.

A $1.4 million demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Labor supports the three-year initiative to develop paid summer internship partnerships with water and wastewater utilities serving disadvantaged areas of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Emily Garner, assistant professor and Maurice and JoAnn Wadsworth Faculty Fellow in the Wadsworth Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, said there is a national shortage of workers in operations that deal with wastewater, stormwater and drinking water.

A survey Garner’s team conducted showed West Virginia water sector professionals ranked recruiting and retaining staff, and planning for employee turnover and transition among their top challenges. 

“In McDowell County specifically, the Public Service District told us that having employees to monitor water quality and operate the systems is among their greatest needs,” she said.

“McDowell is a large county with numerous legacy water systems installed by mining companies. Centralized sewer infrastructure is often lacking. Our work indicates over half of water and wastewater utility operators across the state of West Virginia will be eligible to retire within the next decade, so worker shortages like those in McDowell County, along with our state’s aging water infrastructure, will only get worse unless we act. Our goal is for this program to serve as a pilot project to establish a model for training new workers for jobs in water and wastewater that can be applied in other locations across the state and Appalachian region.” 

The need for a training pipeline is clear to Garner, who leads the workforce development effort with Kevin Orner, assistant professor and Maurice and JoAnn Wadsworth Faculty Fellow, and Lauren Prinzo, a WVU Extension specialist in community and economic development.

Their focus is on meeting local workforce needs and providing “good jobs” to participants — jobs offering living wages, benefits, career advancement and wage growth. Nationally, the water sector pays more than other fields: $25.22 per hour on average for water jobs, versus $23.86 in all other occupations.

Water jobs also have lower educational requirements than many industries, with 53% of water workers having a high school diploma or less. In place of educational qualifications, water jobs rely heavily on on-the-job training. In fact, a minimum of two to four years of training are typically required before a worker can become a certified water or wastewater operator.

The internship program Garner oversees enables participants to start accruing certification hours right away. Starting this summer, interns will spend an average of 20 hours a week obtaining hands-on experience in water sector jobs, mentored by industry professionals. Virtual and in-person sessions delivered by Garner’s team will train interns on safety, licensure and fundamental water treatment concepts.

Interns cannot have previously worked a full-time job for twelve consecutive months, so most will be high school, GED, and technical or community college students or recent graduates. They will earn $12 an hour and receive a stipend to cover uniform and travel expenses.

“In rural communities, travel times even for participants traveling within a given county can be substantial,” Garner said. “We’ll cover interns’ mileage and make sure they have the high-visibility uniforms and protective footwear they’ll need to meet safety standards.”

Garner is working with the West Virginia Rural Water Association to educate participants about post-internship training opportunities. “The West Virginia Rural Water Association administers apprenticeship programs,” she explained, “so they’re an ideal partner to facilitate interns’ continued training after they’ve completed our program.”

In addition to establishing and running the internship program, Garner and her colleagues will also collaborate with groups like McDowell County Schools, Reconnecting McDowell and 4-H to raise K-12 awareness about water careers and water sector issues, and they’ll provide resources and support to employer partners.

Garner emphasized that in rural communities like McDowell County, each dollar spent building water or wastewater infrastructure creates $15 in private investment and adds $14 to the local property tax base. 

“McDowell has West Virginia’s lowest workforce participation rate – 28.5%. They have a 32.8% poverty rate and a 7.1% unemployment rate. With coal’s decline, McDowell has seen a steady decrease in employment opportunities and population since the 1970s,” she said.

“We cannot support business development for Appalachian communities like McDowell if they don’t have adequate access to water and sanitation. Availability of drinking water and wastewater services is a prerequisite for economic growth, and well-trained water sector workers are essential to those services and to economic development. Our job is to enable people from these rural communities to obtain local careers, remain in the region and thrive here.”



MEDIA CONTACT: Micaela Morrissette
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications

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