By Greg Reyneke, MWS
The sun beat down mercilessly on us as we drove the dusty road toward the work camp where our prospective labor-pool awaited us. We needed 28 strong-backed men to help dig trenches and emplace HDPE piping for a desalination system. I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough applicants to talk to. My interpreter assured me that we would have no problem finding the help that we needed. Walking into the work department was a sobering experience. In the dimly lit hall, the acrid scent of human sweat and desperation lingered in the air. I stood in the stifling heat, surveying the scene and a sea of humanity looked back at me. Old men, young men, boys barely old enough to pass as ‘legal to work’ with eagerness and desperation in their eyes, each holding their work-permission slip, granting them permission to work in this area. We had over 300 people hoping to secure our 28 work opportunities. Wages were negotiated, labor was secured, the contract completed and clean water was distributed where it needed to go.
Contrast this with a recent interaction back in the States. I sat in my office, meeting with a 23-year-old who casually browsed on his iPhone, while paying cursory attention to my questions about what he wanted for a career, how he felt about working with his hands, what he reads recreationally and how many speeding tickets he has. He was enrolled at a local state college as a business major and was convinced that after graduation, $100,000 per year jobs would fall into his lap by virtue of the vellum that he would soon receive. Many employers in the US and other developed nations are facing a shortage of people willing to pursue a career in the trades.
When I graduated from university, my father said: “Never just rely on your degrees. Learn a trade; you never know when you’ll need it.” After I moved to America, I received a partnership opportunity to learn the basics of the water business. I was soon employing numerous technicians, installers and salespeople and I found many candidates who were happy to work for us part-time or until they graduated school when they could get ‘real jobs.’ Nobody wanted a career in water.
I mentored my team with daily classroom instruction, field-training, nightly reading assignments and a two-level deep accountability structure. I had them all certified as Water Specialists and felt good about their progress, but it came at a significant cost in time and resources, especially where I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep them all for life. Back in the mid 1990s, it cost approximately $5,000 to train one field-service worker. We had many good years together, where they were very well compensated for working hard, serving their clients and growing our business. This reinforced my belief that good help is rarely found, but rather made through careful recruiting, training and mentoring. Barring a few who moved on to jobs in finance, none of them made more after graduating and moving on than they did while working in water. Only one of them took what he learned and embraced a life in water. He now owns and operates his own very successful water treatment business, something that’s quite gratifying to me as a mentor.
If you’re frustrated that you can’t find and keep good help, you’re not alone. The US Department of Labor is predicting a shortfall of over two million skilled workers by 2020. Academia and well-meaning parents are largely to blame here. As victims of their own success, colleges have created the false hope of guaranteed earnings potential and prestige to those spending inordinate amounts of money at their institutions of higher learning. This exclusive promotion of a college education over all else inadvertently stigmatized vocational training and blue-collar jobs, to the detriment of future generations and the American economy at large.
Today’s high-school graduate is now realizing that a college degree means nothing unless they have the necessary accompanying skills to be relevant and marketable in a dynamic and evolving workplace. Successful candidates will develop the technical and soft skills needed to work in modern jobs through non-traditional education paths. These workers do not need to have a four-year degree from college. Instead, they find training through community colleges, vocational schools, software boot camps, technical certification programs, high-school technical education and on-the job apprentices and internships.
In 2011, Dr. Tanya Lubner approached me with a radical idea that had been approved by the WQA Board: The WQA would replace the old ‘read-a-book and take-a-test’ method of certification in favor of an apprenticeship-based method, where people learn on the job and build new skills upon their existing skills. This Modular Education Program (MEP) would leverage the Internet and peer-mentoring to ensure workers are properly trained to do their jobs and serve their clients.
Needless to say, I was excited to participate. I am humbled to see how many leading men and women in our industry have selflessly shared their knowledge and experience with the WQA to enable the MEP to become a legitimate vocational program that can train people to be smart and successful in the business of water. By standardizing training around a uniform core of demonstrable knowledge, certified personnel have a unique set of marketable skills that are useful and relevant almost anywhere in the world.
Employers worldwide are facing various hiring problems and in many cases, the key to their problems is having access to an apprenticeship program like the MEP. The coming blue-collar renaissance is exciting to me, since people can manage their own destiny by acquiring real skills that employers want and that can enable them to possibly even own their own businesses.
One of our businesses is a dealership group where my wife and I manage a team in Utah. This is where we test new ideas and practice what we preach. In this entity, we have now started to enroll every employee, whether a marketer, receptionist, technician, salesperson or installer into the MEP to help ensure that all staff have a uniform minimum level of standardized knowledge and the field-skills to minimize our liability, while enhancing profitability. The MEP is saving us money every day and as it continues to improve, I continue to appreciate it. By my most recent calculations, the return on investment for a one-year MEP subscription is approximately four months, which is quite impressive. MEP is a pathway for people from all walks of life to enter the world of water treatment and learn from the best and brightest minds in the industry on how to improve human life through better water quality.
Today’s labor market is different than before; employees hold much of the power. That doesn’t mean employers are powerless, it means we must understand what caliber of person is motivated by the career field that we’re in. It is our job as business owners and managers to recruit and lead people who possess internal values making them idealistic, integrous and interested in learning. All mechanical skills can be taught after that.
About the author
Greg Reyneke, Managing Director at Red Fox Advisors, has two decades of experience in the management and growth of water treatment dealerships. His expertise spans the full gamut of residential, commercial and industrial applications, including wastewater treatment. In addition, Reyneke also consults on water conservation and reuse methods, including rainwater harvesting, aquatic ecosystems, greywater reuse and water-efficient design. He is a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee and currently serves on the PWQA Board of Directors, chairing the Technical and Education Committee. You can follow him on his blog at www.gregknowswater.com