Developing careers in leakage prevention - the human element to get to 50% leakage reduction

Anyone currently working in leakage activities, whether in detection or strategic capacities, will either through retirement, or moving on to different industries, not be in the industry by the time the 2050 leakage targets are due. So how are career paths within water and leakage meant to be developed? Joe Sanders shares his thoughts. 

05 Sep 2022

Some of us (myself included) are planning to still be around working diligently as ever in 2050. I sometimes wonder who might be there alongside me. It’s also true that some early career professionals in that time have not yet been born, so we have time to change education, placing a stronger focus on the importance of water and the engineering surrounding the industry.

So how can our industry continue to attract the best and the brightest, the hard workers and innovators and retain them now, and into the future?

In writing the Water UK “A Leakage Route-map to 2050”, I was interested in how people got started in leakage and the ‘origin stories’ of those currently in the industry and leakage. None of us at the age of  14 or 15 ever said to careers advisors, that we wanted to work in the water industry.

So how are career paths within water and leakage developed? None of us are educators and we have mentored the next generation, as we were mentored by the ones before us. Many of us learnt the basics of leakage by listening to those that had tackled problems before us. Improvements have been made by challenging existing practices and new thinking coming into the industry, but will these be enough to achieve the 50% reductions set out for 2050? I would think not.


The current state of the workforce

Retention in water companies, consultancies, and contractors appear lower than they have been and are likely to get worse with the current cost of living crisis. This is leading to a brain drain as well as works look for better paid opportunities in other similar industries. This naturally has an impact on the number of mentors for people in the early parts of their careers, reducing their enthusiasm for the work that we do. They are then less likely to continue working in leakage and look for other opportunities instead.

Retirement stats also suggest many of leaders leaving the industry in the not too distance future, reflecting the ‘silver tsunami’ as some have called it. This is not just an issue for the water industry, but the utilities sector as a whole. With decades of knowledge leaving the industry daily and early retirements accelerating, this may be a larger problem in the years to come.

Relationships are also being tested, not between people (although these can cause problems), but between processes. In my opinion, there is an ever-growing gap between the strategy side of the work, and the on-the-ground detection and repair side of leakage. When I was first in the industry, I was actively encouraged to “get out on-site” and see first-hand the day-to-day issues and learn from them. I strongly believe that this has helped me understand the data that I see, helping me provide actionable insight rather than misinterpreted information.


How we can reverse these trends


Let’s look at each of the areas above one by one starting with retention. More and more Water Companies and Contractors are paying the National Living Wage to their operatives. Not all contracts necessarily demand it. The industry seems to be very quick to sign up to environmental policies (i.e., zero carbon, etc), but less so on initiatives that would assist the people which are the heartbeat of the industry. Yes, this would likely mean a national cost increase, but consider for a moment, the efficiency that is brought in by recruitment and retraining when staff leave the industry.

Retirement, is a difficult one to resolve, admittedly. We can begin by ensuring that we recruit and educate the next generation in the best possible way. For me, this can be accomplished in three ways:

  • quality apprenticeships for field operatives
  • a better water-based STEM teaching experience for all and a personal ambition of mind
  • a postgraduate course on leakage strategy and economics.

This trifecta will hopefully ensure that when people eventually leave, the knowledge they possess will endure.

Relationships are incredibly important to foster. A better understanding of the relationships between assets, data and strategy is something that takes time. Time needs to be made available for field operatives to understand why strategic decisions have been made. Analysts also need to understand what the data they see on a spreadsheet means in real life.

Another way to improve all these areas is shared success. I am always reminded of the NASA cleaner who, when asked what they do, responded with “I helped get a man on the moon”.

Today, news stories around leakage are often focused on the failures or costs we have as an industry. We need to change this dynamic by educating the press and public, of the difficulties we face both politically and scientifically. Achieving leakage targets in AMP7 and the Public Interest Commitment in 2030 in an affordable and proactive manner is possible. We can then build on these victories as we move toward the next challenge in 2050. Success breeds success, and people will want to work in an industry that has shown it can succeed.

So, it is obvious that we have a long way to go to achieve the 50% reduction targets. One of the biggest challenges includes the human element. I look at teams we have at RPS, working on these problems for water companies daily, born around the world, (more under the age of 30), full of bright new ideas. Willing to do their bit towards a better future for the environment and challenging the old norms. I’m filled with optimism as I think that with this diverse and interested team, we have the potential to meet and maybe even exceed this challenging target.


This article was first published in the October 2022 edition of The Institute of Water Magazine ,Institute of Water.

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