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Young Americans are emerging from the pandemic with a new view of work. A job is no longer just a paycheck. It’s a chance to do something meaningful, to make an impact on society while also making a living.
As many engineers search for a consequential career after a year-and-a-half of COVID, wastewater engineering should be on the list. Right now, there is a worldwide shortage of wastewater engineers. Many utilities say as much as 30 percent of their skilled staffers are nearing retirement age or have reached it.
This workforce crunch began years before the pandemic. I think much of it is the result of poor branding and marketing. Water utilities traditionally have been viewed as the silent service — out of sight, out of mind — and few Americans realize the true importance of excellent wastewater management.
Opportunity to do good
The time is right for ambitious engineers — whether their specialty is chemical, civil, or computer science— to examine the expanding possibilities of a career in utilities.
Yes, more people may be naturally attracted to working for the Apples, Facebooks, and Teslas of the world. But I also meet with many big-company coders who are unfulfilled working as one of 100 programmers on a single internal task that may never even see the light of day.
These giant corporations know the world has changed for employees. Just a few years ago their websites were all about workers in the office playing ping pong, eating popcorn, and gaming on PlayStations. But quarantine turned the tide, and these corporations are now promoting themselves as purpose-driven workplaces.
There may be some people who feel they can make Earth a better place by writing code for social media. But I guarantee that a lone engineer can make a much bigger difference, far more quickly, through wastewater management.
Wastewater engineering is problem-solving on a massive scale. It doesn’t matter if you are a resident of a city or suburb, an adult or a toddler, a resident of a mobile home or a worker in a massive factory — everyone flushes. And it all ends up at a wastewater treatment facility.
Because wastewater is universal, it is central to public health.
Scientists in most developed countries have relied on wastewater to track the spread of COVID and even identify single asymptomatic cases in college dorms. Public health officials relied on wastewater to find and halt a recent outbreak of polio in the Middle East.
Improper wastewater treatment is linked directly to outbreaks of cholera, encephalitis, giardia, stomach flu, Hepatitis A, typhoid, and E.coli diarrhea.
You want consequential work? If an engineer screws up AI code for Facebook, one part of a newsfeed for a social website goes down for a few minutes. If an engineer screws up AI code at a water treatment plant, people’s health can be on the line.
Making a difference
Regulators use wastewater to track down illegal meth labs, midnight dumps of toxic waste, and slow leaks of heavy metals. Industries are inventing new chemicals faster than regulators can target them. Wastewater engineers are on the front lines protecting the public from health-threatening discharges of pharmaceuticals, industrial pollutants, and the PFAS forever chemicals that now taint the body of virtually every American.
With the help of skilled wastewater engineers, programmers, and chemists, regulators can help identify businesses that are discharging wasteful amounts of solvents.
That sleuthing can save factories — and taxpayers — millions of dollars.
What wastewater engineers do matters. The change of a few processes can make the difference between clear water in a stream, or a disgusting algae bloom in a lake. You can alter a procedure in the morning and enjoy a significantly cleaner beach in the afternoon. A city can’t grow without reliable wastewater treatment.
A sole engineer’s decisions on infrastructure, treatments, and repairs directly impact whether customer bills go up or down.
The job of wastewater engineers will never be the center of attention at parties. But let there be no doubt: When that party is over, and the band and bartender and host are comfortable at home, they will all rely on the skilled and dependable work of a wastewater engineer.