While Queensland’s urban water sector has historically been male-dominated, statistics gathered by the Queensland Water Directorate (qldwater) for its biennial Urban Water Workforce Report show that assumption may no longer ring true.
Queensland Water Directorate (qldwater) biennial Urban Water Workforce Report shows a positive move towards gender diversity, as well as quantifying some concerning workforce challenges. This includes high vacancy rates (15 per cent for water plant operators, for example). It also showed extended vacancy durations of up to and beyond a year for a range of critical occupations.
The present picture
As of November 2022, 6,711 people were directly employed in the Queensland Urban Water Industry. This is compared to 6,686 recorded in 2020. The workforce typically comprises water operators (civil, treatment and dams with some irrigation), engineers, trades, trade waste, science/technical professions, management, and business support functions.
qldwater’s report reveals some of the sector’s complex challenges. Those challenges include an ageing workforce, attracting and retaining staff, and competition from other industries (particularly resource industries). A range of other factors create an environment that is compounding the longer-term skills and labour shortages.
For example, most of the workforce is aged between 31 and 60 years old. Nine per cent is over 60. Although this has been a consistent trend since reporting began in 2010, the nature of some of the roles is physically demanding. Early retirements and occupational detachment from such positions occur at relatively younger ages. The report also draws attention to the increased retirement rates from specialised occupations such as dam operators, which has been pronounced over recent reports.
While the water industry remains male-dominated, the gap between male and female employment is closing. The percentage of female employees across the State increased by 8 per cent from 2020 to 2022, the biggest increase since reporting began. The most significant uplifts in female participation were in trades (up 32 per cent) and civil construction and maintenance (up 37 per cent).
Training is key
The Certificate III in Water Industry Operations is still the most used qualification in the National Water Training Package (NWP) at 70 per cent, maintaining its position as the predominant qualification for Queensland’s water/wastewater treatment operators and supervisors operating conventional treatment systems. These rates of achievement have increased over recent years.
However, the public provider of training for the sector (TAFE) withdrew from the delivery of the NWP in May 2022. This has already negatively impacted the sector’s access to and choice of training (particularly subsidised training), and its long-term impact on the industry is still to be determined.
Trends towards increasing technology, community expectations, outsourcing and legislative reform emphasise the need to address workforce, training, and professional development challenges to ensure operators of urban water facilities are competent, adequately supported, and qualified to run their sites successfully and in a manner that protects the environment and community health.
Measure to manage
Due to the nature of Queensland’s urban water sector workforce being employed by a range of entities, including local governments, statutory authorities and government-owned corporations, accurate reporting of diversity metrics across the sector remains challenging. For example, mandatory reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency for ‘relevant employers’ is limited to larger employers (100 or more employees). There are rules around corporate groups and the public sector. At the same time, other data sets subsume water into the broader utility sector, with the urban water sector appearing as a sub-group, which in some cases is too small for publication.
The data and industry insights collected by qldwater indicate that much of this sector is behind in measuring efforts around diversity data collection and analysis – but it is not alone. A recent Australian HR Institute (AHRI) report (2023) shows fewer than half (45 per cent) of HR professionals actively measure the diversity profile of their organisations.
This is not surprising. The collection of the right data can be resource intensive, not least to ensure correct procedures and regulatory requirements are met, but because the nature of this data is personal and for some employees, revealing diversity information can be confronting.
Diversity is what makes each of us unique. It includes people’s backgrounds, personalities, life experiences and beliefs, all the things that make them who they are, not least ethnicity, gender, age, race, religion, disability, and sexual orientation.
Data collection practices that recognise the vast array of diversity demographics are an increasing expectation and a critical tool to ensure that each individual and the workforce they represent are visible. As such, qldwater is expanding the range of workforce metrics in future workforce surveys and other reporting.
Managing the challenges
While data and measurement are important, it is essential to understand what data is and is not needed, and how it will make a positive difference to the organisation and its workforce.
How organisations manage diversity and intersectionality (individuals experiencing more than one aspect of diversity, such as First Nations women or an older worker with a disability) is increasingly important.
A person’s individual characteristics affect their experience of the world and their workplace. They also provide them with unique perspectives, skills, and capabilities. This is also true for workers from other sectors.
As an essential service sector experiencing critical workforce shortages, the industry needs to ensure that it is an attractive employer to a range of individuals and that the industry’s work environments are accessible. The industry has an ethical (and legal) obligation to do so. It also needs to include the unique characteristics of large proportions of its community as a potential workforce to benefit its sector. After all, inclusion only occurs when people feel and are valued and respected.
For more information, visit https://qldwater.com.au/
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