Misconceptions of the Ascending Groundwater Workforce

The next generation of workers can positively impact your business.

By Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG

During groundwater industry meetings and conferences that I’ve attended in the past few months, I’ve consistently heard conversations from managers of well drilling companies, hydrogeologic consulting firms, and other groundwater-related entities that have stated their concerns about meeting their need to hire and retain good staff members.

The groundwater industry is expanding in many areas of the country, and our industry is also evolving to address emerging issues and technical requirements of the groundwater industry (such as GIS and numeric modeling skills, PFAS and other emerging contaminants, and new drilling techniques and chemical additives).

That means we need to add qualified personnel, and we also need the additional staff to be trained to address the growing list of technical and regulatory challenges we face.

Exploding Demand

Staffing needs vary from place to place, but in the southwestern United States where I live, the groundwater industry seems to be booming, and groundwater professionals are scrambling to keep pace with the combination of a growing population and healthy economy, constrained surface water supplies, and exploding demand for water well infrastructure.

About every single water well drilling company, pump company, and hydrogeologic consulting firm in Arizona is currently hiring since we all need to maintain or expand our staffing resources to meet ongoing and projected workloads.

The need for new staff is exacerbated by the fact that multiple months or even years are required to train new employees in the areas of health and safety, professional protocol, and the technical aspects of our work. The new employee will be ready to “break out” as a qualified member of our workforce only after they’ve received adequate training.

Although our need to hire new staff is downright critical, none of us are interested in just seeking warm bodies to fill employment slots. Whether the staffing position is a drilling crew member, a water resources professional, a hydrological technician, a water policy professional, or any other aspect of the groundwater industry—employers should still seek only those candidates who can fit in with the rest of the work crew, learn on the job, and grow within the company.

Even in this environment of heavy workload and unprecedented staffing needs, I still often hear complaints about how “those millennials” have a poor work ethic and sense of entitlement that results in an overall poor professional attitude.

This concept—that an entire generation of people from many different places and having many different backgrounds would all have a singular set of personality traits and work habits—makes absolutely no sense to me. It occurs to me that the core of this issue may not be a generational change in work practices, but a fundamental failure to communicate (remember the movie, Cool Hand Luke).

First, we should get on the same page regarding just who we’re talking about. The term “millennial” actually refers to people who were born between 1980 and the mid-1990s. We tend to refer to all young people as millennials, but the younger folks who were born between the mid-1990s and about 2010 are appropriately termed “Gen Z.”

Many “baby boomers” like myself (born between about 1945 and 1965) are in management positions of groundwater companies. We assign a lot of importance to hard work and a commitment to the company to achieve financial security and the respect of our peers by advancing ourselves within the industry.

We often view those who don’t share our focus on company success as lazy or unmotivated. This perception is invalid in many cases, but it spawns the disapproving views of millennials we sometimes hear.

Perspective from Millennials

To get a feel for how young people view themselves as groundwater professionals, I asked several junior hydrologists in our firm and my son who is not in the groundwater business but is a young professional working as a certified welder about how they feel about the perception of millennials lacking good work habits.

These young professionals are all members of the millennial or Gen Z generation, and they were all aware of the stigma applied to their generation. They each provided a pragmatic and persuasive response, which demonstrated their awareness of the negative reputation that millennials have a “poor work ethic” and a “sense of entitlement.”

According to the young people I talked with, the differences between the work ethics of millennials and baby boomers boil down to this: baby boomers have a focus on security, and millennials have a focus on fulfillment.

The baby boomer’s focus on security is a manifestation of the world we all grew up in. The economic conditions were variable but often unstable, and most of us had to work hard just to make a living and care for our family. Strong work habits were engrained into us and are greatly valued by our generation.

In contrast, the millennial’s focus on fulfillment results from that generation having had life experiences only during more recent times. Millennials are accustomed to (and focused on) current issues such as political division, environmental concerns, climate change, etc.

They are more concerned with quality-of-life issues than just financial stability, and that concern is reflected in their approach to the working environment.

They grew up in a world where the daily challenge is to achieve satisfaction and contentment rather than surviving. Thus, instead of being motivated to fit in with whatever working situation they may be assigned, they tend to pursue a good work/life balance that will include an abundance of professional growth and also individual experiences.

So, millennials may not demonstrate a strong commitment to the goals that are assigned by company managers—even though they actually have strong professional attitudes that are augmented by the personal stability that results from a balanced lifestyle.

Based on my recent discussions with millennials in my firm and in my family, and based on my history of working with young professionals over the past four decades, I’ve not found any truth to the allegations that our younger generations have a lack of professionalism or work ethic.

Some individuals have poor work habits, and some individuals have good work habits. All types of people are included in every generation, but broadly speaking, the millennial and Gen Z people in our industry are not afraid of hard work and long hours, and they are eager to learn and thrive in the groundwater business.

Advice for Millennial Recruitment

Keeping in mind that I am definitely not a recruitment or employment expert, I do respectfully offer the following observations and tidbits of advice for employment of millennials. These are intended as helpful notes for employers in the groundwater industry that are seeking to hire and retain qualified young professionals:

  1. Maintain and demonstrate an environment of honesty and professional ethics. I’ve had millennials tell me that during interviews they feel like “they’re being sold something.” If the candidate for employment senses a lack of transparency or insincerity, it may turn them off even if the work conditions and salary are otherwise acceptable. That means they may turn down your job offer and go to work for your competition!Most groundwater professionals are genuinely honest and forthright, so it’s just a matter of showing the candidate who you really are.
  2. Facilitate comfortable ways for young professionals to provide feedback. As a seasoned professional in a management role, you have much more experience than the younger professionals. However, it is still important for them to feel comfortable seeking guidance, providing feedback, and making suggestions.Remember that when a young person makes an unwise suggestion that is rejected, do so with a good explanation of why that suggestion won’t work. This constitutes a learning experience for the junior person, and they simultaneously feel respected and empowered.
  3. Resist the urge to reflect on the “bad old days” when our generation had to be rough and tough and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Such folklore may be true, but it is often inconsistent with today’s health and safety standards and workforce protocols.Although we learned important lessons from the mistakes and near-misses of our youth, that is not how the younger generation will learn those lessons, nor should it be done that way.
  4. Don’t make insincere attempts to appear environmentally or culturally sensitive. Just be yourself, and “walk the talk” in a bona fide way. Thinly veiled efforts to greenwash ecological issues will just appear as a disingenuous facade.Young people are observant and pretty smart, so realize that as a groundwater professional, you’ve already proven yourself and your company to be strong advocates for the precious groundwater resources of your area. Nothing could be more environmentally appropriate than taking good care of our groundwater resources.

I am presenting a bullish view of future groundwater professionals, but this view is supported by my observations and experience with young people, including having taught a hydrogeology class at Northern Arizona University last fall, and having worked with a lot of sharp young folks over the past 40 years.

I sincerely believe upcoming generations of water well drillers and hydrogeologists will step up to the challenges of the future, and in the groundwater business, there will be plenty of those challenges!

Learn The Art of Water Wells
Get The Art of Water Wells by Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG, a 2019 book from NGWA Press that is a comprehensive overview of well systems and delivers practical information applicable to real-world situations. The book is ideal for everyone working in the groundwater field. It provides practical information of water wells—covering everything from site selection to design, drilling methods, economics, and more. Click here to order it, call (800) 551-7379, fax (614) 898-7786, or email customerservice@ngwa.org.
Have a Drilling Question for Glotfelty?
Is there a drilling issue that you have wondered about for a long time? A question you have wanted a second opinion on for a while? Send them to The Art of Water Wells column author Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG, and he will utilize his more than 35 years of experience to tackle the question for you. Email Glotfelty at mglotfelty@geo-logic.com, and the answer will appear in an upcoming NGWA: Industry Connected video.

Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG, is the principal hydrogeologist for Clear Creek Associates, a Geo-Logic Associates Co. He is a licensed well driller and registered professional geologist in Arizona, where he has practiced water resources consulting for more than 35 years. He is author of The Art of Water Wells (NGWA Press, 2019) and was The Groundwater Foundation’s 2012 McEllhiney Lecturer. Glotfelty can be reached at mglotfelty@geo-logic.com.

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