Shifting in Shifting Sands

By Don Kerr
February 1998

Growth and change are as necessary for the wastewater treatment industry as they are for any other field. But when growth and change manifest themselves in acquisitions or mergers that affect the jobs and financial security of the people who make up the industry, the degree to which the change is positive is unknown. Professionals in the field have had to adjust often as publicly financed wastewater treatment plant construction, long the industry's engine for growth, became less dependable. At the same time, the number of independently owned small and mid-sized equipment manufacturers has been reduced dramatically. NorthWest Water, Wheelabrator, Thames Water, U.S. Filter, Waterlink, and other companies that share the view of offering broad product diversity under one corporate umbrella have altered the industry permanently. In reviewing an issue of any wastewater industry buyer's guide from 10 years ago, it is breathtaking to see how many firms have been opened, closed, bought, merged, or otherwise transformed. These changes illustrate the need for professionals to be proactive with their careers and recognize good managers and employers who successfully are doing business and maintaining their staffs.

How does a professional, in these days of nonexistent job security, develop a career plan for 5, 10, and 20 years into the future? Individuals must continue to acquire skills that establish employment security, regardless of the employer. This is a larger trend not particular to the water and wastewater treatment industry.

Today, employers generally are much less loyal to their employees than they were 20 years ago. A disproportionate number of key employees or managers in engineering, sales, and process departments who were prime players in building their companies have suffered from downsizing or been displaced in an acquisition. Takeovers, mergers, and downsizing make employment longevity with any firm nearly impossible. Professionals need to develop those skill sets that will reward them with employment security, either with their current employer or another company.

Developing security often is a process of assessing the obvious and drawing the most basic conclusions. The first step is to analyze long-term industry trends in conjunction with personal goals and interests. Industry publications are an excellent place to gain a larger perspective. What role does your employer play in the larger industry? Is it well positioned for the future? Are you working in a function that other companies would value? Developing employment security is a process of defining any actions that will increase your value to a company. A dewatering product specialist may ask to work on an aeration project; an applications engineer whose primary experience is treating industri­al wastes may ask to write the proposal for a municipal job, Many people in this high-tech industry are working within a virtual university, if only they would learn as much as their firms could teach them.

Many times, a person must make efforts outside of his or her official job description to develop employment security, Professional associations, "extra hours" projects, and Internet chat rooms for a particular specialty are avenues for identifying and broadening employment security.


The industrial markets, including paper, petroleum, chemical, and food, will continue to grow despite manufacturers' success in reducing or eliminating process wastestreams, Many industrially oriented firms will require greater civil and construction expertise as turnkey or design-build contracts become more common.

Copy Another boom could develop in the municipal arena, as conditions seem suitable for a convergence of consumer and governmental interest in drinking water, which could be compared to the boom days of the 1960s and 1970s when the nation was building a network of wastewater treatment plants. The convergence of emerging technology, the revised Safe Drinking Water Act, and some highly publicized incidents involving public drinking water safety make this market a safe bet for career opportunities in the next decade.

Diversity Versus Specialty

Professionals need to look inward and determine what sort of role will best allow them to achieve their most important career and personal goals. If they choose to be specialists, will that expertise be in demand in 10 years? Employers should be put to the same test. Specialization can be a two-edged sword. One professional built a successful business in high-tech graphics only to see desktop and personal publishing make her business somewhat obsolete in her targeted markets. Treatment specialists need to ask themselves how well they would be positioned if market forces or technological advances quickly devalued their specialty, then assess the chances of such a scenario coming to pass. What if the conventional filter press became obsolete? On a similar theme, what if an employer were purchased or relocated? How many other firms would value that person's specialty, and where are those firms located?

Generalists, on the other hand, can find a larger pool of potential positions and competition for jobs. Professionals who consider themselves generalists should look for ways to stand out - a value-added approach to employment security. The one or two engineers in a department of eight who are active in industry or professional associations, or who, in other ways, set themselves apart will get the promotions and internal rewards as they build a career network apart from their current employer.

Practical Steps

By far, the most critical first step is assessing where you are now and where you want to go. Professionals need to assess their jobs, technical knowledge, and employer against the backdrop of the growing and shrinking areas of the industry. Lifetime learners always are secure, and opportunities always exist for education in emerging areas. If an area of interest or specialty is moving overseas, professionals who do not want to be left behind should learn a second language and get a passport. If a current area of expertise seems to be vibrant, professionals need to learn more about it.

Similarly, if an employer considers, even in passing, a new product, process, or technology, professionals should ask for the registration fee to attend a relevant seminar. This industry is technically driven. Degrees, certifications, registrations, and licenses really matter.

Fifteen years ago, many of the pioneers and early heroes of the industry, who started firms from their basements, occupied the positions of power: Fifteen years from today, very few will. The ongoing consolidation of the industry cannot be a neutral force. Over the next decade, the industry will be characterized either by the growth of huge corporate groups or by their implosion.

Don Kerr is a senior technical recruiter specializing in the water and wastewater industries in New Paltz, NY