Obstacles and paths to water operator careers
By Katherine Saltzman
Amid retirement surges across the water workforce, there are ongoing discussions about the urgency to recruit, train, and retain new professionals. Part of this effort involves establishing the water sector as an attractive career path that supports essential infrastructure and protects public health and the natural environment.
However, the water sector faces additional challenges that most sectors do not. Training requirements and certification expectations vary among states and naturally among utilities that differ in size, revenue, and process capacity. But the challenges go deeper. They include limited access to updated, peer-reviewed training materials; inadequate time and money for operators to study or maintain continuing education requirements; and the challenges to keep pace with rapid technological changes. These challenges are in addition to equipping employees with the complex science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) components necessary to be a water operator.
However, solutions are emerging to overcome these challenges and secure the workforce of the future. Organization, states, and utilities are finding ways to attract and train the essential employees who will protect our infrastructure, environment, and public health.
Water Sector Uniqueness
As highlighted in the 2018 Brookings Institution report, Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving Water Infrastructure and Creating a Pipeline to Opportunity, many of the water sector’s concerns about its workforce reflect similar social, labor, and economic concerns across all U.S. sectors. These concerns include high retirement rates, limited pools of qualified replacements, and fear of technical knowledge loss. The report calls these concerns “emblematic of bigger economic trends and broader policy issues facing the country, including the continued need to support a new generation of workers amid mounting retirements, changing technologies, and other labor market shifts.”
But where the water sector stands apart is the need for greater upfront preparation in terms of extensive training, skills, and knowledge competency. The Brookings report states a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that water sector jobs have a higher threshold for entry.
More than 78% of water workers need at least 1 year of related experience and 16% of water workers need 4 or more years prior to joining the water workforce. Moreover, about 44.7% of water workers need at least 1 year of on-the job training to qualify for their positions. Compare this to the national average of 5.6% of jobs across all occupations that need more than 1 year of on-the-job training, according to the data.
In addition to on-the-job-training, water workers are required to operate various technologies and tools as part of their daily responsibilities. These requirements add additional complexity to operator jobs and training. According to the Brookings report, “Water workers embody the definition of skilled trades. On average, water workers use 63 different tools and
technologies each, compared to the 6 tools and technologies typically used by workers in all occupations nationally.”
Entering the Water Workforce
Even though most sector newcomers lack operational experience, each still is required to passing a level 1 certification exam and possess hands-on experience as prerequisites for employment. With these considerations, utilities typically hire entry-level employees without a license and provide a certain amount of time for the employee to study for and pass a certification examination. Those who pass are then promoted to a full-time, certified operator position. This pre-certification periods ranges from 30 days in some states up to year in others.
“We have a chicken and egg system here: you can’t get hands on experience unless you have a license, but you can’t get a license without hands on experience,” said Sidney Innerebner, principal and owner of Indigo Water Group LLC, a wastewater consulting and operator training company. Innerebner also is authoring WEF’s new Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals series.
Supporting Continual Operator Training
Once hired, operators are expected to continue studying for higher certifications and collect continuing education units (CEUs). Larger utilities may have an in-house trainer who develops CEU curriculum related to facility processes or equipment. This trainer works with the entire operations staff to help prepare them for certification exams. However, midsize and small facilities, which make up most treatment systems in the U.S., typically don’t have the resources to support in-house training; therefore, operators self-study and use external trainers one online courses to prepare for examinations.
Despite the options available, there is concern among operators and trainers that the Need-to-Know (NTK) Criteria, which is tested for in certification exams and incorporated into curriculums for CEUs, may not always apply to the processes at an operator’s facility or be relevant to their daily responsibilities, Innerebner said. NTK criteria is extensive but lacks detail on which topics are necessary for exam preparation or responsibilities in the field, making it difficult for operators to study, she explained.
“One of the big issues with training is that it’s often geared toward more complicated systems. If you look online, you could probably find 100 classes on activated sludge but more than 85% of the treatment plants in the U.S. are lagoon systems,” Innerebner said. “It’s hard to find training on lagoon systems or classes on wastewater treatment ponds.”
Additionally, acquiring CEUs and preparing for certification exam require time. In some cases, operators are given working time to prepare and test; this requires them to get shifts covered. In other cases, operators must use time-off to maintain their licenses and training.
In Colorado, for example, there are week long operator training classes which would meet the entire training requirements for 3 years, Innerebner said. But this requires coverage at the facility as well as travel expenses.
Other options include online training, which provides more scheduling flexibility. Indigo Water Group has about 650 operators enrolled in online training class.
“Operators like it better so you can do it over time, it’s a little easier to incorporate in the day,” Innerebner said.
A significant portion of operator training materials, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) manuals, have not been updated since the late 1970s or the 1980s, Innerebner said. She added that training materials typically have been based on work practices at facilities instead of scientific research.
“We have learned a lot about wastewater treatment in the last 40 years, a lot of stuff has changed how we teach, has changed our understanding of the process” she said.
“We’ve been in a cycle of asking people in the field what they do every day at work and then basing training materials on that instead of setting standard practices based on scientific research. The result is a cycle that always looks backwards instead of forward,” she explained.
To provide new training materials, WEF developed the Wastewater Treatment Fundamentals series. In addition to being double peer-reviewed by water sector experts, the series aims to assist in translating the world of wastewater treatment to individuals who have held technical jobs outside of the water sector.
“I try to take new concepts and relate back to what people already know. It’s easier to hang things on your framework, then to build a new framework all together,” Innerebner said. Because many operators come from mechanical backgrounds, it helps to relate new topics to familiar ones, she explained. For example, biology and bacteria can be compared, albeit imperfectly, to engines.
“Live with the imperfect analogy until you can get a better understanding of what’s actually happening,” Innerebner said. “That goes a long way with helping people learn.”
Keeping Pace with Technology
Utilities and trainers work to keep pace with rapid technological changes to ensure their staff and operators are prepared to handle new equipment. This has led to training that focuses primarily on technology at a facility. While this training is valuable, it needs to be coupled with education on the general curriculum.
“I am seeing more clients asking for very specific training on the technology they have at their location, onsite training for specific technology,” said Scott Jameson, a water and wastewater operator trainer and consultant in British Columbia, Canada offers classroom courses and on-site training for utilities in the region.
Sometimes the tech training is to reduce a knowledge gap after losing a senior operator, other times, however, utilities are trying to multitask and prepare operators for certification exams and train them on new technology at the same time, Jameson said.
“I find them more and more willing to pay to have an instructor to come to their sites,” Jameson said, “This is tied into the idea that they want training focused on the technology they are using.”
He cautioned, however, that this doubling up doesn’t work well, if the goal is to pass a certification exam. Jameson said he takes the time to sort out this different with his clients. He works with them to clarify their objectives to provide the training truly needed.
The Operations Challenge competition held annually at WEFTEC, and similar state and regional events are examples of programing that combines operations training and skill development with practice on new technologies. To keep the competition fresh and challenging, the events are redesigned periodically. These events introduce competitors to new processes and technologies and provide hands-on experience with new and different equipment.
Apprentice Programs and Technical Schools
One highly visible path for newcomers to enter a water sector career is through apprenticeship programs or technical schools. Some utilities have created these programs or built partnerships with local colleges to help facilitate the education and hands-on training necessary for an operator position.
South Platte Water Renewal Partners (formerly known as the Littleton Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant) has done both. Cindy Goodburn, a WEF member who now works as an independent consultant to help organizations improve workforce development and organizational skills, started the apprentice program in the 1990s when the utility struggled to fill Operator A positions.
“At the time, we were focused on the A certification. Most A operators are really secure where they are working. They have the ’golden chain,’ fully vested in all of their retirement stuff, maxed out on vacation — all those benefits that make it difficult to leave and start with a new organization,” she explained. “Our answer to golden chain was that we would build our own.”
Though there have been some changes, the goals of the apprentice program remain the same. Operators are given a designated time frame in which to obtain higher certification levels; they are incentivized with pay increases.
“Each time the person passed a new certification, they got promoted to a new operator certification and payline raise. We paid for all of their schooling, their books, certification exam.” Goodburn said. “But their end of the deal was that they had a certain timeframe in which to complete these [tasks]. The goal was to get all our operators A certified and there was a maximum amount of time. If at any of those points, they couldn’t pass the exam, we would have to terminate employment. But we’ve only had to do that a couple of times over all these years [that we have had this program] It’s just been a huge success.”
This facility also maintains a partnership with a local community college with a water quality management program. Many of the college students interned at the facility as part of their curriculum. These same students later joined the apprentice program to become operators.
Goodburn noted that utilities can help direct curricula at technical colleges to ensure colleges are preparing students for workforce needs. For example, when supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems were introduced to the facility, few staff possessed the needed skills to use them. As Goodburn searched for employees or students to fill the role, she discovered that the community college was providing outdated curriculum.
“The instrumentation and controls [curriculum] were in the electrical degree programs and it was so antiquated it wouldn’t do us any good,” she said. “That’s kind of my soap box on partnering with local educational institutions and helping them understand what is needed in the industry for their students to graduate and get into a job.”
Taking this collaboration one step farther, the Water Engineering Technology (WET) Program at Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia, in Canada has a curriculum recognized by the Environmental Operators Certification Program (EOCP), which is the main certifying entity for the region. The WET program also is a nationally accredited engineering technology program. All certified engineering technology programs are mandated to meet regularly with an advisory committee to determine curriculum and skills needed for the workforce.
“We have to keep in contact with the industry. All of the Engineering Technology programs are mandated to have Program Advisory Committee that is comprised of individuals from different industries that our students would go and work in” said Allison O’Neill, chair of
the Water Engineering Technology Department. These committees “advise us on changes in the industry. We also ask them about our curriculum [and] when we propose curriculum changes, they review those changes to ensure it fits with the need of the industry.”
The committees include members from public and private sectors organizations, including the local municipalities, the water resource recovery facility, consultants, urban planners as well as representatives from the Province of British Columbia’s Ministries of Environment & Climate Change Strategies, and Forest, and Lands and Natural Resources.
“We make sure that we have broad representation, we also try to make sure that our advisory committee includes WET graduates who are working in the industry because they understand both the curriculum and the industry,” O’Neill said.
The Brookings report also includes recommendations to involve stakeholders in training development. The report suggests that since water workers are required to maintain continuing education units, utilities and other water employers should provide additional frameworks and “develop competency models —or customize existing models — to promote continued learning and skills development among staff.”
Tasks associated with this development include defining and measuring types of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed among water workers within the organization. The report also recommends creating more robust programs to introduce younger, nontraditional workers to the water sector to acquire hands-on experience.
Goodburn noted that the success of the apprentice program is based on supporting staff and operators at each level of their career and providing training and opportunities to move upward.
“One of things we were successful at was developing people in their careers,” Goodburn said. “I used to tell my staff — and it would freak them out— ‘I want you to work yourself out of your job every 5 years, but I want your new job to be here, with us, at Littleton/ Englewood.’”
“I think that’s philosophically what the management was looking for: those people that really wanted to reach, grow, and really make a career out of it, not just a job. I think that has really been the success in the apprentice program and throughout the rest of the organization because people do have the opportunity to grow.”
Katherine Saltzman is a publications assistant at the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) where she works on WEF’s Operator Initiative programs.