Making dirty jobs sexy

How awareness can redirect young workers to greying industries

Jesse Hollett
Posted 4/19/17

OAKLEAF – Lindsey Estevez is a tattoo covered, recent high school graduate working with men who, often, are two to three times her age.

Estevez, 18, is a statistical anomaly in a field where …

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Making dirty jobs sexy

How awareness can redirect young workers to greying industries


OAKLEAF – Lindsey Estevez is a tattoo covered, recent high school graduate working with men who, often, are two to three times her age.

Estevez, 18, is a statistical anomaly in a field where she works as a wastewater operator for the Clay County Utility Authority. That agency, and many other specialties like it, currently faces an aging workforce incapable of capturing the interest of younger generations.

As the younger generation increasingly turns to science, medicine and technology fields, the ‘somebodies-got-to-do-it jobs’ have seen a slow decline in youthful new hires and a gradual climb in the average age of their employees.

Now, as many of these employees are primed to retire, employers are looking for new ways to fill what could be an impending workforce void.

Before the crisis reaches critical mass, companies have begun the search for a remedy. And for many, the solution comes from education.

“We have a lot of aging employees,” in ther wastewater treatment plants, said Celeste Laffy, public information officer for CCUA. “It’s not really sexy, but it’s something that we all have to rely on. And when you ask kids when they’re in school what they want to be, they always think of really interesting careers, and you can’t really imagine most of them saying ‘hey, I want to be a wastewater operator.’”

Two years ago, the utility began an internship program with the Clay County School District to reach out to students who may be interested in related fields, whether it be environmental sciences, engineering or technology.

That’s how Estevez first got involved.

“I wanted to work with my hands, be outside, have on the job training,” said Estevez, a graduate of Middleburg High. “I didn’t even know it was a job, wastewater operators, people don’t even think about it.”

It’s reasons like this that contribute to the utility’s worker age range of 27-years-old to 66. Wastewater operators are especially in demand now, considering there is only a finite number to serve an ever-growing population who rely on that water for irrigation and aquifer replenishment.

Often, Laffy said, utilities will fight over workers, offering ever-increasing benefit packages and wages to licensed operators.

By no means, however, is this worry exclusive to the field.

“Young people come out of school now and they’re not interested in being plumbers or concrete workers…they all want to go be [Information and Technology] workers,” said Bill Garrison, president of the Clay Economic Development Corp. “How do you make these occupations sexy again? How do you make them where young people are attracted to them? There’s no easy way to address that, I can tell you right now, there’s no easy way.”

The EDC is currently in talks with multiple companies in Clay County on how best to remedy the growing problem of workforce greying.

So far, the best ideas to come from talks have all revolved around education. Exposing teens, in particular, to potential careers through expos, fairs, career days and internships to help remove the stigma hanging over some of these careers and help groom a new generation of skilled workers, said Garrison.

“It pays to invest in the budding workforce,” Garrison said. “And I think we’re going to see more and more of that.”

The hunt for younger workers is increasingly frantic in the construction field. There are currently about $1.2 billion in Department of Transportation projects in process in Northeast Florida.

“With that much work, we have a clear need for the next generation to help build the infrastructure in Northeast Florida,” said FDOT engineer Scott Lent in a recent interview with Clay Today. “We are trying to educate students about the transportation and construction industry as a whole. We need contractors and consultants, so we’re trying to engage the next generation into the industry.”

Over the last four years, FDOT has participated in a regional expo to show students aspects of the construction field. Construction Career Day drew 600 students to the Jacksonville Equestrian Center March 30 in a showcase of almost every piece of machinery in the FDOT arsenal.

Vac-Con, the Green Cove Springs based truck-mounted machine manufacturer, employees 318 people. More than 50 percent of those employees are over age 40.

“We have this issue facing us,” Garrison said. “It’s not just Clay County obviously, it’s everywhere.”

When Estevez moved from intern to employee in June, another employee simultaneously retired. She expects by next year to move from a trainee to fully-licensed wastewater operator, a career that will make her $50,000 annually before she even leaves her parents’ home.

“I really didn’t have a plan, I wasn’t interested in anything,” Estevez said. “I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with life…Some of my friends have gone to college. I’m cool with that, it’s just not for me.”


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