A focus on hiring veterans could help ease the industry’s skilled-labor shortage

Military Maneuvers in the Water Industry

Jose Martinez firmly believes that military veterans are great candidates for jobs in the water and sewer industries, which sometimes struggle to attract employees. And the general manager of the Otay Water District should know — he’s a United States Navy veteran himself.

Granted, Martinez had an easier path than many veterans when he transitioned from the Navy into the water and sewer industry. After leaving the Navy, he worked as a consultant and project manager for power and water utilities for five years before the OWD — based in Spring Valley, less than 10 miles east of downtown San Diego — hired him.

Nonetheless, Martinez realizes that obstacles exist to what otherwise should be a perfect marriage between well-qualified veterans with high-level, skilled-trade experience and an industry facing a shortfall of skilled laborers, especially as baby boomers prepare to retire in the coming years.

After all, a machinist that can fix a broken pump while cruising underwater on a nuclear submarine can surely apply those same skills at utilities.

“This is a big passion of mine,” says Martinez, who serves as the vice chairman of the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association’s Veterans Engagement and Transition committee. He also works on veterans’ issues with other like-minded personnel at the 24 regional water agencies that belong to the San Diego County Water Authority, one of the primary agencies from which OWD buys water.

The OWD provides water, recycled water and sewer service to a population of about 226,000 people in a 125-square-mile area. It owns and operates about 723 miles of potable waterlines, 104 miles of recycled waterlines and 84 miles of sewer lines.

Large labor pool

Military veterans represent a huge labor pool. By some estimates, 30,000 veterans leave the military each year in just California alone. And most of them prefer to stay in the state, which means there’s an available labor pool that would be the envy of many employers, says Martinez.

Furthermore, veterans typically have the aptitude and mindset to be great utility employees.

“It sounds corny, but the military culture centers on discipline and accomplishing a mission — figuring out how to get things done,” he notes. “In addition, employees at utilities serve the public, doing something that’s bigger than themselves — making sure the water supply is safe, reliable and cost effective. And this is a culture to which veterans, with their can-do attitudes, can relate.”

The OWD employs roughly 140 people, including nine veterans. While the district certainly would like to hire more, utility agencies tend to have lower turnover rates, which limits hiring opportunities. However, Martinez points out that’s expected to change with the coming wave of retirements.

Furthermore, until very recently, there hasn’t been a clear career path for veterans to join the water and wastewater industries without starting at the bottom, then earning certification, even though they have experience that’s equivalent to a more advanced certification.

In addition, the industry only started focusing more heavily on the veteran employment issue a few years ago. And to use a Navy metaphor, it takes a while to turn around an aircraft carrier.

Martinez speaks from experience. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2001 with a degree in mechanical engineering. After serving on a Los Angeles-class, fast-attack nuclear submarine, Martinez left the Navy in 2007.

The OWD hired him as a utility services manager in 2012, then promoted him to assistant chief of water operations. He became general manager in early 2020.

New connections

So why is there such a disconnect between veterans with skilled-trade experience and water and sewer utilities that need them? Martinez says that it’s a multipronged issue.

For starters, there’s a language barrier, so to speak. Too many human resources departments at utilities look at veterans’ resumes and don’t understand that their job skills, often spelled out in hard-to-decipher military jargon, are well suited for jobs at utilities.

“Too many hiring managers think they need employees with specific [water sector] experience,” he says. “So when I talk to them about hiring, say, an Air Force water and fuel systems specialist, they say no — even though there are strong similarities between that job and a position like a utility maintenance worker responsible for the installation and maintenance of water and wastewater distribution systems.”

By the same token, many veterans simply aren’t aware of the solid career opportunities that exist at water and sewer utilities. “We need to educate them more, get them excited about these great careers,” Martinez says.

Another obstacle is the job certifications required to be, say, a water plant operator, for example. Some veterans might be highly qualified for such positions. But without the required certifications, they’re forced to start at lower-paying, entry-level positions for which they’re overqualified.

Unfortunately, that can be a disappointing non-starter for many vets.

“An experienced petty officer might be eligible for a job that pays $70,000 or $80,000 a year at a power utility but starts out at ground zero in the water industry,” Martinez explains. “It’s a shame.”

Establish best practices

To better connect with veterans, Martinez says the OWD is focused on implementing best hiring practices to make it easier for veterans to find jobs.

For example, the district now is more intentional about where it posts job advertisements. Military-oriented Facebook groups and other social media offer good examples of oft-overlooked fertile ground, Martinez says.

Furthermore, utilities need to carefully craft job descriptions in those advertisements so that veterans can easily see how their skillsets match up.

“They need to use language that’s more general — that talks more toward veterans’ skill sets than just a position title,” he says. “If you use water industry terminology, veterans are likely to feel they’re unqualified.”

At OWD, job applications include a box that candidates can check if they served in the military. If the box is checked, human resources personnel know they need to assess and scrutinize the application more carefully to be sure they’re not overlooking a qualified candidate. Sometimes another veteran will assist with the review.

“We have to get hiring managers more comfortable with and understand exactly what those military qualifications really mean,” Martinez adds. “Human resources is a critical component in this process.”

The agency also taps into programs such as SkillBridge, a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows military personnel to work at internships during the last six months of their service.

“A couple agencies in our region just brought on board a couple of veterans as interns in the instrumentation field and the feedback after a few months was, ‘Wow, these people are amazing,’” Martinez says.

No quick fix

In 2019, Martinez and leaders at San Diego County also spearheaded the passage of a California bill that allows any education and experience earned during military service to count toward state certification requirements for jobs such as water and wastewater operator.

“So if they have, say, 20 years of experience and can check off a certain number of boxes, they can apply for these higher-level jobs instead of being forced to start at the bottom,” Martinez explains. “That was a huge development.”

Looking ahead, Martinez urges utilities nationwide to get their human resources departments to make water industry careers more accessible to veterans. Many of the best practices they can implement, such as translating job descriptions into more understandable language, don’t require a lot of time and effort.

“There’s no doubt it’s a tough problem with no easy solutions, but as long as we’re mindful and intentional about it in the long term, these best practices can make a big difference in solving the nationwide shortage of skilled labor — provide water and sewer utilities with the technical and administrative skills they need,” he says. 

Link to original article: https://www.mswmag.com/editorial/2021/09/military-maneuvers-in-the-water-industry