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The America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 was signed into law Oct. 23, which includes a provision that establishes a $1 million per year federal competitive grant program to fund training and career development for workers in the water and wastewater industries.

The legislation was sponsored by U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and championed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and its partner utilities in the Water Agency Leaders Alliance (WALA), the National League of Cities (NLC) and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), among other national organizations.

Utility agencies from both rural and urban communities will be eligible to apply for the grant funding. Many of the careers in the water and wastewater industries have low-educational barriers to entry, and the openings are often permanent, civil service positions. When paired with strong community partnerships and intentional strategies to address barriers to employment for hard-to-serve communities, these training programs can help reduce income inequality and address the shrinking middle class.

“Cities across the country are facing a severe shortage of skilled workers to operate our nation’s water systems,” says Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities. “At the same time, there is a looming workforce challenge to build new water infrastructure systems that meet the needs of the 21st century."

An influx of infrastructure work is projected to generate $524 billion in economic activity and create nearly 300,000 job opportunities across the country. The competitive grant program will help train workers to build and repair important water systems throughout the country. According to the SFPUC, nearly 30% of water and wastewater employees across the nation will be eligible to retire in the next 5-10 years. This grant will ensure there are educated water and wastewater employees for the future.

With climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme and volatile weather events, building and maintaining the nation’s critical water infrastructure is more important than ever. Over the next decade, the country’s 30 largest water utilities are estimated to spend $23 billion on water infrastructure projects, according to the Water Environment Research Foundation.

The partner agencies in WALA advised on a recent study from the Brookings Institution that found workers in the water industry tended to be older and lacked racial and gender diversity in certain areas. The report recommended new strategies at the local, regional, state and national level to attract younger and more diverse employees. The competitive grant program—the first of its kind for the water industry—can help achieve those goals.

“As the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District embarks on a $4.3 billion Critical Repair & Reinvestment Plan (CRRP), we recognize the need for a qualified and skilled workforce to meet our infrastructure challenges,” says Louisville MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott. “In Louisville alone, the economic impact will be $5 billion and 3,700 jobs per year over the next 20 years in sustaining the CRRP. This new grant will ensure the funding is available for Louisville MSD to collaborate with workforce development agencies, technical schools, and others to get employees in the diverse neighborhoods we serve the training and skills needed for our industry.”

The SFPUC has long been a national leader in offering career development and workforce training programs. Through initiatives such as the Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP) Cityworks, Project Pull and the Jobs Training and Opportunities Program (JTOP), the agency creates meaningful job training, internship and apprenticeship opportunities for local residents.