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Industry in Focus: Water

In recent years, the UK water industry has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Campaigns to stop sewage releases have united public opinion, while decades of under-investment have left some water companies on the verge of bankruptcy and proposing controversial bill hikes to fix the network. 

The public anger towards the industry is having a knock-on impact on employee safety, with the GMB reporting one in three water workers has been verbally abused. Alongside this is the broader effect of shame and low morale. Employees report hiding who they work for and refusing to wear clothing showing the company logo. The GMB’s survey of almost 1300 staff found many felt underpaid and underappreciated and did not trust that they had the resources to address the issues causing the public outcry.

Meanwhile, the industry is facing a growing talent shortage. Statistics show that just 8% of all UK water workers are under 24, and more than a fifth are less than a decade away from retirement.  Water companies struggle to fill over 35% of skilled roles, compared to a national average of 23%. With changing technologies and an aging workforce, it is estimated that 63,000 vacancies will need to be filled across the industry by 2027.

One crucial area that could have a profound effect is diversity. Out of the 60,000 individuals employed by the UK water sector, a staggering 80% are male, a significant disparity compared to the national average of 53%. This gap is particularly pronounced in engineering roles, highlighting the need for a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

The sector, traditionally slow to adapt to digital technologies, is now at a turning point. The potential of these technologies to revolutionise the industry, from finding efficiencies to quickly identifying problems across networks, is immense. The industry now faces the challenge of acquiring new skills through hiring a highly sought-after skillset, and this is fraught with difficulties. Some water executives find that newly trained data engineers are picked off by other sectors with much better compensation plans, demonstrating the importance of benchmarking total reward and providing a strong employee experience.

One example of how water companies can engage beyond their traditional talent pool can be seen at Northumbrian Water. Their annual Innovation Festival brings digital partners and creatives together in a day-long hackathon event.

To plug the talent gap, companies must promote a motivating purpose and be willing to turn the tide. Protecting the natural environment and making the most of our resources are two examples of the positive roles water companies can play, and are hugely attractive to those who want to make a difference.

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