The operation of water treatment plants is an essential service provided by councils and water authorities throughout Australia. Many lay people do not consider the human element of treating water, including the skills and experience required to consistently produce safe drinking water.
Operators play a central role in ensuring safe drinking water supply, and in smaller regional and remote communities often retain complete responsibility for operation and maintenance of the entire supply system. In addition to daily duties at the water treatment plant, operators in many smaller communities are also responsible for:
Repair and replacement of mains and services
Planning upgrades and renewals
Incident and emergency management
Risk management plans
Other unrelated essential services including sewage and landfill.
Consistent supply of safe drinking water relies upon knowledge and experience gained by operators. Operating water treatment plants often require timely intervention to prevent 'losing' a process and the protection that the barrier provides. Operators with in depth knowledge of water treatment, the characteristics of the catchment and water source, the plant and reticulation network help ensure consistent water treatment outcomes for communities.
In 2018, Australian Industry Standards produced Water Industry Skills Forecast, surveying water industry stakeholders for feedback on skill requirements in their businesses. Water and wastewater operators were identified as the number one occupational shortage in the water industry. The reasons for the shortage were diverse, but included (in order of frequency):
Ageing workforce and retirements
Competition from other sources
Cost and time to achieve qualifications.
The shortage of skilled water treatment operators can be an issue for water security, particularly in regional and remote areas where operators play a central role in all aspects of water supply. It is also a problem across many other industries. Other industries are currently considering measures to improve regional staff retention, including projects to improve social isolation in health workers (Cosgrave, 2018) and improving community engagement and support to assist in attracting migrants to regional areas (Regional Australia Institute, 2018).
Australian Industry Standards 2018, Water Skills Forecast 2018, Australian Industry Standards, Melbourne, Victoria, viewed 22 January 2019, https://www.australianindustrystandards.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Water-Skills-Forecast-2018-Final_v2.pdf.
Cosgrove, C 2018, 'Attracting and Keeping) Australia's Rural Health Workers', Pursuit, October 2018, viewed 22 January 2019, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/attracting-and-keeping-australia-s-rural-health-workers.
Regional Australia Institute 2018, The Missing Workers: Locally-led migration strategies to better meet rural labour needs, Regional Australia Institute, Canberra, ACT, viewed 22 January 2019, http://www.regionalaustralia.org.au/home/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/180510-The-Regional-Australia-Institute-2018-The-missing-workers_policy-paper_FINAL.pdf.