Skilled worker shortage in the water and wastewater industry – a worldwide challenge

Water is a vital raw material and a human right. Within the context of global efforts to secure a supply of skilled workers for such a key resource, multipliers from sub-Saharan Africa undertook an expert visit to look at various aspects of initial and continuing training in the (waste)water sector in Germany.

Considering the background of increasing water scarcity across the world and acting on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), GOVET and the federal institute of vocational education and training (BIBB) invited water specialists from Africa to engage in networking as part of a high-calibre study visit to Germany. Many countries on the African continent have water ministries or agencies which are responsible for water and sewage plants, the latter are organised along the lines of public-private partnerships. There is, however, a widespread lack of qualified skilled workers to perform operational processes and maintenance in the area of water and wastewater treatment.

The 19 participants on the study trip, who were from the BMBF's partner countries of Ghana and South Africa and from Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia, thus chose to focus on initial and continuing training in occupations within the water and wastewater sector. From 7 to 12 November 2022, they visited relevant best practice sites in the Cologne/Bonn area and in the Ruhr region and networked with experts from the fields of trade and industry and research.

Global challenges in the water industry

Summer heat waves of recent years have also made it very plain to people in Germany that access to drinking water is not self-evident. Germans are particularly aware of the importance and indeed of the key worker status of the skilled staff who ensure quality, repairs and maintenance of the infrastructure and proper waste disposal.

This is an area in which fundamental questions of global relevance to vocational education and training come together. How can elements of practically related training be planned and drawn up, and how can curricula be developed? How can modern water technology be brought to rural areas in a sustainable and resource-conserving way? The input they received from the experts and the stop-off points of the study visit enabled the sub-Saharan multipliers to take home significant ideas and expertise regarding these questions.

These are aspects which also play a central role at the level of training regulations in the corresponding occupational fields. A future-oriented consideration of digitalisation (with regard to critical infrastructure) and sustainability (with regard to the conservation of resources and climate change) are of particular relevance to these occupations, especially in the light of the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the World of Work 4.0. For this reason, the so-called technical environmental occupations are currently undergoing a complex updating procedure.

Existing occupational profiles will soon be modernised by the introduction of the new occupations of environmental technologist for wastewater management, environmental technologist for recycling and waste management, and environmental technologist for pipeline networks and industrial plants. Dr. Stephanie Conein (BIBB) provided the delegation with insights into the regulatory procedure and, within the context of the present shortage of skilled workers, also pointed out the clear under-representation of women in this occupational field.

Insights into company training reality

The African guests gained expertise in company-based practice via the numerous insights they were afforded into water and wastewater companies and into training centres in the greater Bonn/Cologne/Ruhr region. A clear picture of the theoretical input, of the challenges associated with training young skilled workers and of possible solutions emerged from the visitors’ opportunities to view the processes and technologies used by the companies directly, for example at the Bonn sewage works and at the Hans Schwier Vocational School in Gelsenkirchen.

The Hans Schwier Vocational School specialises in areas such as water supply engineering and also acts as a trade and technical school for environmental technology. It offers specialist classes across the entire state. The meeting between trainees and their African guests allowed a detailed debate on water supply in the respective countries. Similar starting points for discussion arose when the group joined trainee pipeline networks technicians to view a special vehicle used to inspect sewers. The Training Centre for Supply and Waste Management in Essen (BEW) offered information about the continuing training provision that is available within the scope of the technical environmental occupations.

The utilities company Gelsenwasser in Haltern and sewage works in Duisdorf in Bonn and in the Weiden district of Cologne showed both the nature of water supply and water management in practice and the approach adopted towards vocational education and training. Sewage works directors are seeking to proactively combat the shortage of skilled workers by arranging work experience placements for school pupils and by encouraging women to enter the specialist occupations in the sector. At Gelsenwasser in Haltern, visits by school classes are also organised in a bid to inspire a fascination for the technical environmental occupations. The members of the African delegation were also visibly impressed by the extensive areas that are being used for water extraction.

Participants entered interactive virtual reality water management worlds at the German Association for Water, Wastewater and Waste (DWA) and then had the chance to discuss commercial products and services in the sector with training providers at a round table event staged by the iMOVE Initiative.

The delegation members familiarised themselves with the way in which a globally successful pump manufacturing company operates during a so-called "Perfect Visit" tour of the WILO Industry 4.0 site in Dortmund. The WILO Foundation was established in 2011. Its activities include involvement with water projects in African countries. It also trains people in rural regions and works in conjunction with organisations on the ground to construct water purification and wastewater disposal plants. The delegation's visit had been arranged by trainees. Project managers were also on hand to explain technical equipment which is able to retain its functionality in difficult environmental conditions and can be maintained by appropriately qualified staff. The future global significance of key occupations in the water management sector once again became apparent.

The high-level study visit from the multipliers from sub-Saharan Africa facilitated the generation of practical and conceptual impetuses for the implementation and restructuring of training in the water sector in the respective countries and also reinforced global networking between the experts themselves. Next year, GOVET will continue to provide technical support for the dialogue and networking with the multipliers.

Source: (website of the German organization GOVET), revised by iMOVE, May 2023