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Wastewater Professional Shortage Presents Challenges and Career Opportunities

September 12, 2022

  • Well-paid and often overlooked jobs in the wastewater sector offer meaningful careers protecting public health, water systems and the environment. 
  • Local and federal spending on water infrastructure is projected to grow.
  • MetroConnects is adding team members to meet demands of Greenville County’s aging sewer systems.

The good news: As you might have heard, unemployment rates have returned to pre-pandemic lows across the United States and South Carolina in recent months. Greenville County numbers come in even lower than the state and national averages. The bad news: While wages are rising, median household incomes in Greenville County remain below the national average, and in many municipalities, incomes are well below the state average. But this brings us back to the good news: Well-paying jobs are out there, and they are growing with the “green economy.”

The wastewater sector might not be the first industry to come to mind when considering a career path. After all, the aim is for that work to go unnoticed so that customers never have to see (or smell) what flows through their pipes. Wastewater professionals are on the frontlines everyday, protecting communities from groundwater contamination, sewage backups and wastewater overflows. Increased frequency of extreme weather events and aging infrastructures have added new challenges, as water crises like that in Jackson, Mississippi make clear. These challenges, combined with an aging workforce, also present new opportunities for those entering the job market or considering a career change. As baby boomers begin to retire and the technical complexity of water systems management increases, demand for skilled wastewater workers is skyrocketing.

The need for wastewater professionals is so prevalent that in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a $3.8 million grant program to help build the water sector workforce. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act this summer, which is set to fund $369 billion in energy and climate work, opportunities for water sector professionals will only grow.

Steven Harrison, senior manager of operator programs at the Water Environment Foundation, has noted that these jobs are unlikely to go away or decrease in value. He told Governing journal that clean water and sewage disposal has been described as the greatest medical advance in a century and a half. “These are not mundane public works jobs,” he said, adding that they pay enough to sustain a family, can’t be outsourced and are largely immune to economic externalities. What’s more, he said, “they’re necessary wherever people live.” More than 130,000 miles of sewage pipes snake through the United States, and local governments spend an average of $50 billion a year on sewer systems, Governing reports. In 2016, a U.S. EPA survey found that $271 billion was needed to improve and maintain the U.S. wastewater infrastructure.

Dunean Mill Village is among the communities whose aging infrastructure MetroConnects services.

Here in Greenville County, where MetroConnects maintains 1,400 miles of sewer, essential infrastructure improvement projects are needed to replace aging systems that risk downstream contamination. Most pressing are sewer systems in the eight historic mill communities formerly serviced by Parker Sewer District and now served by MetroConnects. The approximately $100 million improvement project is critical to protecting downstream water resources, preventing excess rainwater from entering the sewer system, stabilizing utility rates, and ultimately lower long-term costs.

A skilled team of wastewater professionals, from engineers, to GIS specialists, to operations and maintenance crews, is already planning and performing this essential work. And our team is expanding! If you would like to join us in our mission to protect public health and the environment, check out our jobs board for current listings.