With an expected skills shortage of 27,000 people by the end of the decade, the water sector urgently needs to attract and retain new talent to take it forward, writes Lila Thompson.
An exciting industry
Water is at the forefront of addressing climate change and building a resilient economy. As a sector that connects the global population, we are one of the most exciting industries to work in right now.
Both in the UK and internationally, water is at the heart of the post-Covid green recovery and is embedded in all aspects of development and economic growth, while undergoing its own technological transformation.
"We are one of the most exciting industries to work in right now."
However, with an expected skills shortage of 27,000 people by the end of the decade, the sector urgently needs to attract and retain new talent to take it forward.
Data analytics, artificial intelligence and digital development are examples of where parts of the sector lack experience. Yet they are areas which are critical to addressing water’s momentous challenges. The task now for water companies and the supply chain is to ramp up promotion of the industry to potential employees from different backgrounds and create a wider talent pool.
"We all need to diversify"
In July 2021, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Higgins, head of water, UK & Ireland, at technical solutions provider Jacobs. During the conversation, part of British Water’s Talking on Water series, he discussed how he sees the industry adapting to meet its environmental and regulatory challenges.
“We need to embrace diversity and bring in people who see things differently.”
He agreed that a fresh approach to recruitment was needed: “We all need to diversify. It could be around ethnicity, gender, cultural but it’s also about people’s skills, background and experiences.
We need to embrace diversity and bring in people who see things differently, change the way we recruit and train. We need people who might come at it from a very different perspective.
"We’re moving into IT, we’re moving into tech - we’ve just recruited someone from a gaming background. It’s that kind of diversity we need. We have to go out and promote the opportunities for people to come into what is a great sector and apply their skills and get great satisfaction out of what they do."
As such, I was hugely encouraged to see a report from the Energy & Utility Skills Partnership. This includes several UK water companies, marking the first anniversary of its Workforce Renewal and Skills Strategy for 2020-2025. The strategy was launched on behalf of the water, power and gas sectors in June 2020 to ensure they have the workforce needed now and in the future.
Partnership progress but work to do
One year on, good progress has been made. There’s been the launch of new initiatives such as recruitment networks, communications campaigns, including #WorkInWater social media messaging, cross-sector partnerships and a new Energy & Utilities Inclusion Commitment, of which British Water is a signatory. However, the partnership acknowledges there is still a lot to be achieved before 2025.
"My conversations with utilities tell me there is an increasing desire to better tell the sector’s story."
In addition, the water sector is delivering its own collaborative strategies, such as the Innovation Centre of Excellence and Water Innovation 2050, which should also prove be a catalyst for the capture of new ideas and approaches.
My conversations with suppliers and utilities tell me there is an increasing desire to better tell the sector’s story, to raise more awareness of its challenges and successes and to communicate the value of water to the public.
Doing so will not only bring the sector more support with its strategic plans and ambitions, it will engage those who may not have otherwise considered a career in water but who could be key to our future success.- Lila Thompson is the Chief Executive of British Water.
- Lila Thompson on water supply chain race to zero
- Lila Thompson: Why we need supply communities
- Lila Thompson on collaboration with India