Launch Slideshow

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The Replacements

The Replacements

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    Photo: Stephanie Diani/Getty Images

    Millennial Lindsey Mannan (left center) and Gen Xer Kathy Mahboubian (right center) are being groomed by their baby-boomer mentors Jill Thomas (left) and Alan Oswald to navigate the ins and outs of the Engineering & Building Department in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

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    Photo: Morton College

    Right: Since Morton College, Cicero, Ill., was refurbished to attract the latest generation of students, enrollment has increased. Two students share ideas over a laptop, which is built into a cubby wall that provides quiet computer space in the college's hallways.

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    Photo: Operations and Maintenance Division, Washington County, Ore.

    Ben Walnum gets acquainted with the public sector as an intern for Washington County's Department of Land Use and Transportation.

It started with a trickle. An early retirement here. A few resignations there. Even more have given their notices. In a few short years, the public sector will bleed out. The baby boomers—the largest generation alive—are set to retire, to be replaced by the nation's smallest: Generations X and Y.

“We're seeing a real crisis in numbers right now, and it's only going to get worse,” says Heidi Voorhees, president of management consulting firm The PAR Group. Based in Lake Bluff, Ill., the firm serves local governments nationwide. “So far, we're seeing shortages of front-line supervisors, finance officers, and public works directors—particularly those with PEs.”

And that's just the beginning. The more technical the field, the greater the shortage will be. The endangered list includes engineering, senior leadership, and utility-journeyman positions.

THE GENERATION GAP

Last June, when managers gathered during the American Water Works Association's annual conference to discuss industry issues, the conversation turned to the aging workforce.

“I see a train coming,” said Peter Merlo, principal engineer with Buffalo, N.Y.'s Division of Water. “I wish we had better programs in place to get more people into this industry.”

Honolulu Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Clifford Lum said he's having more difficulty finding young engineers to fill vacancies in his department. They seem to want more than what the department has to offer.

“Young professionals don't have ‘I want to save the world' values,” he explained. “They want benefits, growth, incentives, advancement. Old-timers think of it as instant gratification and are taken aback. They don't want to train someone who will leave in a few years.”

The managers agreed that although younger professionals are looking for meaning in their work, above all they want work-life balance. To attract—and keep—the next generation of employees, public agencies must change with the workforce.

According to Voorhees, this means reexamining existing benefits and policies.