Leveraging the capacity of the informal water sector workforce

The global shortage of skilled professionals in the water sector is a major industry challenge, particularly in an era of growing water scarcity and increasing demand for water from agriculture, industry and domestic consumption. As utilities move to improve their performance in water service delivery, to meet the demands of both consumers and sustainable development, a fit for purpose workforce will be critical.

The recent United Nations Water World Water Development Report on “Water and Jobs” has raised awareness and understanding of the importance of water sector capacity development amongst water sector stakeholders, but the role of the informal water sector workforce hasn’t been fully addressed.

The informal water sector workforce, in this case, could be defined as a network of water sector workers such as water vendors, plumbers and water engineers, who are not formally trained and certified for the job they do. Efforts to recognize and institutionalize the informal water sector workforce in developing countries have only happened slowly, if at all.

This would be a missed opportunity for capacity development and innovation. There is a strong argument that leveraging workforce capacity in the informal water sector is a means to address the shortage of skilled men and women in developing and emerging economies.

An opportunity to boost the water sector

We need to address important questions if we are to capitalize upon the opportunities that are there: How do those in the informal water workforce in developing and emerging economies acquire their skills and competencies? How can the water sector engage and work them to fill human resources shortages? How can the water sector attract these people? And, what is the relevance of professional development for workforce development in the informal water sector?

The informal workforce consists of different categories of workers who get their knowledge, skills and aptitude through learning by doing with their family or community; informal training from agencies such as NGOs or local government providing one-off trainings; or from an informal water apprenticeship.

Informal water apprenticeships are local training programmes established by recognized and so called competent individuals who, through innovative practices, have excelled in providing socio-technical solutions for communities not served by public or private water providers. For example, water vendors in rural communities in Nigeria and other developing countries, instantly recognizable by their wheel-barrows loaded with small portable water tanks, travel miles to communities without access to portable water supply.

Local solutions can help water utilities to be more effective

These local entrepreneurs recruit apprentices who learn the business over time, graduating from apprentice status and subsequently set-up their own local enterprise. Often both master and apprentice belong to an association guided by a code of ethics governing their professional life.

There is a clear opportunity to bridge water sector workforce shortages by working with the informal workforce. Those who want to should be encouraged and supported to start their formal professional career as field level operatives in water utilities. To be successful, this requires utilities to provide Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programmes. These assess competencies, identify capacity development gaps, develop courses to strengthen competencies and capacities, and are vital to effectively leverage the capacity of informal workforce.

This approach provides a mechanism for the informal workforce to upgrade their skills and capacities, and to join the formal sector workforce with benefits for both. As water suppliers expand their operations into new rural communities, the informal workforce in those communities can be trained to manage specific areas of work.

In cases where the informal workforce cannot be readily integrated to a formal workforce, substantial recognition can be given to them through established institutional policies that can accommodate as well as regulate their structure and function in the sector.

In whatever ways a sector intends to tap into the informal workforce, it is crucial that the supportive structure and resources needed by the informal workforce is strengthened. What is certain is that increasing the numbers of skilled water professionals, and upgrading their skills through CPD programmes, can improve water utility performance. It should be seen as imperative for many water utilities in developing and emerging economies as they strive towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Saheed Yinusa