Moving towards Centralisation both in the Sector and in Education. Discussion on Challenges in the Development of the Environmental and Water Management Sector

Over the next ten years, providing water management and waste water drainage services, which are critically important to the society, will become a major challenge, as the industry already lacks young professional specialists and knowledgeable teaching staff at all levels of educational establishments.

Issues of the sector-specific vocational education, workforce challenges in the sector and possible solutions, as well as increase of prestige and competitiveness of the sector, have been discussed by:

  • Sandis Dejus, Executive Director of the Latvian Water and Wastewater Works Association (LŪKA), leading researcher of the Department of Water Engineering and Technology of Riga Technical University;
  • Jānis Zviedris, Chairman of the Board of the CLEANTECH LATVIA Group;
  • Inga Grinfelde, Director of the professional Bachelor study programme “Environment and Water Management” of the Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies (LLU);
  • Jānis Rubulis, Director of RTU Water Systems and Biotechnology Institute, senior researcher of the Water Research and Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory. 

The Critically Important Sector of National Economy Is in the Stepchild’s Role

SD: “During nearly thirty years, the water sector has not gained the status of the strategically important infrastructure – it is perceived as a self-evident phenomenon in contrast to, for example, ICT or energy sectors. The state authorities start realising the problems related to the sector by including it in the critical infrastructure lists very slowly, still not fully aware of the trouble that is about to happen and that decisions have to be taken rapidly and right now. 

Although over EUR 1 billion have been invested in the development of Latvia’s water management sector over the past 25 years, it is only half a step towards sustainable, well-organised and self-sufficient water companies. At least another billion euros would still be needed over the next ten years to put in order centralised water supply and sewer systems. The entire sector has a turnover of around EUR 100 million per year, but it should be taken into account that water companies do not have real profits and, at best, in line with public service pricing policies in the country, companies can invest a relative share of their profit – maximum 7% of their revenue, which is approximately 7 million per year, into their development and improvement of systems. Thus, according to the current tariff policy, the amount of investment currently needed for water management could be reached through collected revenue in approximately 150 years.

The financial issue is the most critical – there is a lack of tools to maintain infrastructure. Revenue is declining annually. There is a particularly gloomy picture in regions and small municipalities, which still use the sector infrastructure built in the 1970s.”

JZ: “None of the national economy sectors can exist without the water sector – neither the Internet, power industry, food production, nor human beings. Water and sewage will be as long as civilisation exists. From a health and risk management point of view, in order to minimise sanitary epidemiological risks, the service should be provided to the public in a centralised manner. That is why we are increasingly trying to point to the sector as a priority in the national economy.”

SD: “Water seems to be a self-evident resource available to everyone and many people just do not realise the importance of the industry. This perception needs to be changed. The stone is on the industry’s field too, as we haven’t talked about it actively enough. Although the sector, as far as possible, has been working at informing the public, it should be taken into account that, as a priority, we have been fighting with the historical heritage for nearly 30 years, for example, by eliminating the release of untreated wastewater into the environment.

Historically, households did not have to pay for centralised water and waste water collection and treatment services in the Soviet Union. Following the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the public was confused about the invoices they began to receive. In view of these aspects, still the cost of services received remains largely inadequately low.”

JZ: “The water sector is not just the supply of drinking water or the collection of dirty water – there are also amelioration systems in agriculture and rain water collection. It is a complex measure that lacks a common strategy in the country. We are far from the level of revenue and prestige that this sector has in the Old Europe. A generational change is needed to get us to the optimal outcome. As there have been very few enthusiasts left in the sector, the generational change may not even take place. The question is how to change the collective thinking that water is not a self-evident phenomenon in a centralised sense.”

The Industry Lacks Specialists

JZ: “The main problem is the difficulty of attracting new specialists – there are other sectors that seem to be more interesting to young people. During twenty-five years, there has been no common long-term vision created on how to develop the sector and how to ensure the qualitative service.

In small water management regions, it is particularly difficult to attract new, knowledgeable specialists due to non-motivating salaries and living conditions. There are good examples as well – municipalities we are proud of, which have arranged water systems of both cities and small villages. In general, however, the problem is big enough.

In order to ensure a continuous service, there are currently people even without secondary education working in the sector. Thus, the quality criteria for workers are not met and training needs to be done at undertakings. There is a lack of people both with appropriate professional and higher environmental and water management education.”

SD: “The average age of employees in the industry is dramatic – exceeding 50 years and further increasing with each year. At least 400 new specialists should be attracted in the nearest time in order to be able to fill in the shortage of working hands in the future.”

IG: “In the field of amelioration, the situation is even more dramatic – the average age of certified specialists is between 60 and 70.”

IG: “Students who have completed the Environment and Water Management programme at LLU become leading specialists in the sector, department managers. However, engineering requires additional efforts from young people – as already after Form 9, there is a lack of interest in learning mathematics and physics. This year, the Environment and Water Management programme has 40 budget places available, but we cannot fill them out because we lose popularity to social and management sciences, and also to IT.

The spotlight on environmental issues among young people unfortunately does not result in the education they obtain. They think about straws, not using bags, not getting to higher education in this field. Our task, when thinking about a sustainable world and green environment, is to ensure that young people also obtain professions related to the environmental sector.”

SD: “In countries where access to water is more limited or technology is more advanced, colleagues work more systematically – meeting with young people and educating them about the sector and its professions. At the moment, the industry is also trying to carry out such activities in Latvia, but there should also be state support, for example, in training of specialists for critically required sectors, provision should be made for a reasonable remuneration so that education is not based solely on fanatics, as is the case at present. This applies not only to the water sector, but also to other critical infrastructure sectors such as energy or gas supply.”

IG: “Every speciality has to have a vertical, starting from kindergarten, to enable universities to expect motivated and knowledgeable students.”

JZ: “It is required to understand the level at which to start forming a meaningful picture about the sector in the minds of young people. Having high quality materials prepared for primary school to give children an idea about environmental and water issues. Career days are also significant – there should be a mobile team of industry messengers that would be ready to visit any institution and talk about the industry in common terms.”

Fewer but Stronger Players

SD: “We are aware that we will not have more specialists and we are planning, for example, to create strong water management companies within the regions that would unite the best and most knowledgeable specialists and manage the infrastructure of the entire region. There are increasingly more such examples. This is the competence of local governments and their understanding of the sector: the most successful examples could be water management undertakings of Madona Region and Dobele Region, which have been managing almost all villages of the region for a relatively long time and successfully and provide the European level service, both through digitalisation and remote solutions. Similarly, the development of uniform water management has been fully or partly implemented by Saldus, Jelgava, Ventspils, Cesis and other regions. The goal is one strong undertaking that provides management of water supply and waste water systems within the municipal borders. The introduction of such arrangements does not require a large number of specialists and there is a possibility to ensure the qualified and appropriately remunerated engineering personnel.

Together with the Latvian Association of Local and Regional Governments, we are pushing this idea forward and a lot of companies involved in the Latvian Water and Wastewater Works Association support it. Being aware of the problem, I have a vision that water management will join forces in the next twenty years and the number of companies will decrease significantly. For example, Scotland and Ireland have only one water management company for the entire country.

Water management undertakings need to join forces by consolidating industry companies and specialists to provide high-quality and sustainable water management services.

I would like to highlight a number of directions for solutions: first, there must be a coordinated approach in the national direction, development and the necessary specialists in the national regulatory bodies; the second direction is the organisation and promotion of the sector, particularly in the field of amelioration and hydro construction. There is one hydro construction engineer remaining in Latvia and he is 86 years old. Who should this knowledge be transferred to?

The model for funding of higher education should be considered at national level. The industry needs a maximum of twenty specialists per year. In the existing model in which the money follows a student or a pupil, it is not possible to provide normal educational process – there is insufficient funding for either proportionate and adequate remuneration of the teaching staff or for any training necessary for establishing and maintaining the infrastructure.

We can now provide one teacher and ten enthusiasts who work at a giveaway price, as well as facilities built in 1996. It is clear that solutions regarding the education should also be found in sectors where there is no need for a large number of specialists. Specialities of this strategically importance sector for society, where the funding model is subjected not to the number of students in programmes but to their importance, must be earmarked for clear and adequate funding of the respective programmes to make them viable.”

JZ: “The merit of Riga Technical University and the Latvian Water and Wastewater Works Association is that the water sector was prioritised by the State authorities a year ago. Our joint task with the LDDK is to hold the bar high. We are reviewing the standards of professions for a water management specialist, environmental specialist and waste specialist and are preparing the ground for the process to move further.”

Joining Forces also in Education

JR: “Similarly to centralisation at the level of local governments, education should do the same – to create one educational programme which is ensured by a number of educational establishments, as the current situation, when vocational education institutions and universities often create new and innovative training programmes by themselves for which it is not possible to attract either skilled and industry knowing lecturers or students, lead to self-destruction and non-applicable graduates. We have now identified educators of vocational education institutions to cooperate with in implementing modular programmes.

A similar approach should also be found in higher education. The vision is to consolidate the forces – to unite educational institutions, management bodies and the commercial sector by concluding a memorandum of understanding with clear tasks for each involved party for the coming year.

A single-farm policy should be interrupted and existing professionals in the field who are ready to work in the academic environment should be brought together and a joint or even single curriculum for universities should be created, uniting the academic staff. In this way, we will be able to ensure the quality of the programme and the level of knowledge needed. An educational road map should be established at least in the water sector. If I have to explain to someone the educational opportunities in Latvia in the water and environmental sectors, in order to understand the role of RTU, the University of Latvia, the Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies, Rezekne Academy of Technology, Liepaja University and Daugavpils University, I would not be able to do it. How professional education institutions could complement the contributions of all these aforementioned higher education institutions is even more difficult to understand.

The industry specialists are now developing two modular study programmes in vocational education, involving the RTU Technology College of Olaine, Daugavpils Construction Technical School and Vidzeme Technology and Design Vocational School, which are prepared to share their resources and teaching staff in order to ensure implementation of the programmes. We move towards centralisation, both in the sector and in education.”

Author: Kristīna Veihmane, 2021 republished from: https://lddk.lv/aktualitate/jaunumi/doties-centralizacijas-virziena-gan-nozare-gan-izglitiba-diskusija-par-vides-un-udenssaimniecibas-nozares-attistibas-izaicinajumiem/

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