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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Inspiring the Future of Women in Wastewater

Inspiring the Future of Women in Wastewater

Editor's Note: We would like to thank NYC Environmental Protection for permission to use this photo.

Despite such worthwhile career prospects, in 2018 women made up only 5.8%  of water and wastewater operators according to statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau. As the water workforce ages and experienced operators retire, the water and wastewater industry can benefit by recruiting more women into the field. Mutually so, inquisitive women with interests in protecting public health and sustaining our environment have much to receive from the opportunities available within the industry.

In the field of wastewater treatment specifically, professionals can exercise their curiosity in the sciences while building technical and mechanical skills. The wastewater operator career not only offers extensive opportunity for growth and advancement, but starting positions often pay well, sustain job security, and will provide on-the-job training. The duties of an operator are an essential public service that require knowledge of wastewater safety, math, chemistry, microbiology, treatment processes, and utility operations and maintenance. Those with a penchant for problem solving and mechanical skills will fare well in the field. Other skills women can develop as a wastewater operator involve communication, presentation, collaboration, and eventually, management.

In the Empowering Women Podcast, Christen Wood, wastewater operations administrator of Summit County Department Sanitary Sewer Services and three time participant of WEFTEC’s operations challenge (with two of her teams making it all the way to nationals), describes the “happy accidents” that allowed her to stumble upon the field. She explains why she continues to hold such passion for her position noting that work as a wastewater operator is a career path, not a job. Listen to Christen’s interview to get a better idea about the type of tasks involved in the day to day work of an operator and the significance of those tasks in public and environmental health.

Still not convinced? NYC Water offers an excellent summary of the benefits a wastewater career will offer to women interested in the field. If you get anything out of this video, we hope its that you start to consider how you can fit into the wastewater industry! Find more information about the experience of women in the water industry at the Words on Water Podcast’s Inspiring Women in Water podcast series. The same podcast produced a separate interview with Mel Butcher, an engineering consultant at Arcadis. Her interview discusses how challenges that women do face as minorities in the industry can be overcome through honest conversation. 

Workforce diversity leads to new ideas, innovation, and progress. Consider how you can bring your skills to wastewater treatment.

Promoting Equality and Equity: Resources for the Water Industry

Promoting Equality and Equity: Resources for the Water Industry

Editor's Note: We want to thank NYC Environmental Protection for permission to use their photo in this post.

Our team at WaterOperator.org was pleased to see organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), Water Environment Federation (WEF), and the American Water Works Association (AWWA), make public statements in support of the racial justice movement. Our program is committed to promoting and upholding the principles of inclusion in everything we do.

Racial injustice affects all of us — at home, at work, and in our daily societal interactions. Times like these define who we are, shed light on our world view, and, most importantly, are an opportunity to affect change. We all play an important role in developing and maintaining equitable places to work and live. Here are just a few resources that might be helpful as your organization navigates this call to action:

A Water Utility Manager’s Guide to Community Stewardship
Highlighted by David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, in his message to the water industry from a Water Online commentary, this manual features a chapter on human resources identifying how to promote welcoming cultures and increase diversity in the workplace.
Host: American Water Works Association

Could This Be What Employees Experience in Your Workplace?
On page 26 of the February 2018 edition of the APWA Reporter, author and operations manager for St. Paul Public Works Department, Beverly Ann Farraher, highlights how public works employee Antione Posey faced racial discrimination in the workplace. The objective of this article is to invigorate readers to consider how they can take positive action to support diversity and inclusivity.
Host: American Public Works Association

U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism
Featured in a recent WEF Smart Brief, this article outlines ways that industry leaders can support minority employees to feel physically and psychologically safe in their workplace during such difficult times of racial injustice.
Host: Harvard Business Review

Water Equity Clearinghouse
This online database showcases organizations and the practices they implement to make water and wastewater service accessibility more equitable and inclusive.
Host: U.S. Water Alliance

Working Toward the Utility of the Future by Understanding and Addressing Bias
Presented at a 2016 conference hosted by the Pacific Northwest Section AWWA, these slides teach readers how the brain processes information to form subconscious biases.  Water industry professionals will learn how to negate these biases to produce and foster a more innovative and diverse workforce.
Host: Pacific Northwest Section American Water Works Association

Echoed by RCAP CEO Nathan Ohle in his statement on the death of George Floyd, there is more diversity found in rural and tribal communities than most people realize. This diversity is one of the many things that make them so extraordinary. We encourage all systems and the communities that they serve to examine how they can promote diversity and remove any barriers that hinder its livelihood both inside and outside of the workplace.  With that, we will leave you with a quote taken from a Workforce Diversity article by Rachel Gilbert included in the AWWA Journal: 

The concept of Diversity & Inclusion needs to be regarded as a value — not just a program or priority. Priorities change values don’t.”

A Message from Nathan Ohle, RCAP CEO

A Message from Nathan Ohle, RCAP CEO

Editor's Note: WaterOperator.org is proudly funded through a partnership with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). In this blog post we have highlighted a recent statement by RCAP CEO Nathan Ohle in response to the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

Throughout the past few weeks, we have witnessed yet another systemic injustice with the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. Over four decades, the RCAP Network has always stood for the common good, including a fair and just society that fosters healthy conversations, true collaboration and equitable partnerships. We strive to celebrate and lift the incredibly diverse make up of rural and tribal communities that we see every day through our work.

We do not have all the answers to address the inequity taking place across the country, or yet know what role the RCAP Network can play in this conversation. However, it is clear that we need to create a space for those conversations to take shape, and to elevate the voices of the rural communities that are working collaboratively with people from all walks of life. We work on regionalization and regional collaboration projects across the country, helping to facilitate tough conversations and bridge differences between and among communities. Those tough conversations are critical to ensuring that we create equitable opportunity for all communities.

What we see happening today in America is not just happening in big cities, it lives in communities of all sizes. Everyone wants to feel safe, secure, and valued, but too many people in this country do not.

Rural communities are much more diverse than most people realize. It is the diversity that exists in rural communities that makes them so special. Ensuring that everyone has affordable access to safe drinking water and sanitary wastewater disposal was the founding principal of RCAP, with a specific focus on the most vulnerable populations across the country. As we consider where we can play a role, we are always here to listen, learn and to support important conversations in whatever form they should take. RCAP will continue to focus on creating and lifting up positive stories, encouraging continued collaboration, providing venues for fruitful conversations, and ensuring that rural communities of color have an equitable opportunity.

A Veteran’s Guide to Becoming a Water or Wastewater Operator

A Veteran’s Guide to Becoming a Water or Wastewater Operator

The career path of a water or wastewater operator is a great fit for veterans that want to continue serving the public with the skills developed during their time on active-duty. The profession requires mechanical, hands-on problem solving abilities and in turn offers job security, good pay, benefits, and professional development opportunities.

Utilities can mutually benefit by recruiting veterans. Talent gaps created by retiring operators can be filled by veterans returning home from active duty. Their military training ensures that they have the dedication, flexibility, accountability, and communication skills necessary to juggle small system needs. Furthermore, veterans are familiar with working nontraditional hours that are sometimes required to maintain smaller water systems.

Given the compatibility between veterans and the water industry, this blog will provide resources and guidelines veterans can use to become a water or wastewater operator.

Obtaining certification will be easiest if military personnel can start developing the necessary qualifications before leaving the military. Operators need to have a broad knowledge of chemistry, microbiology, math, equipment operations, and mechanics. Try to work in water operations or other positions that develops transferable skills during active duty. Request that these experiences be documented by your superiors. Saved military evaluations can also be useful to demonstrate qualifications.

Once you’ve left the military, research the certification requirements under your state. Each state’s certification requirements can vary, however many programs will convert military training into college credits or certification requirements. In the state of Virginia, “substantially equivalent” military training, education, or experience can be credited toward licensure requirements. Virginia also waives the costs for the certification exam. If you haven’t met all the requirements necessary to sit for the certification exam, use our national training calendar to find relevant certification courses and local training providers.

Veterans that are just beginning to fulfill certification requirements should consider joining a certificate program within their state. Certificate programs consist of a series of classes that take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for completion. At the end of the program students will be prepared and qualified to take the state certification exam. The best programs facilitate hands-on training at a local utility, however these experiences can also be gained in an apprenticeship. To find an apprentice program, reach out to local water utilities, assistance providers, and the National Rural Water Association’s nation-wide apprentice program. Working at a water utility early on will ease the job hunting process after passing the exam.

For additional assistance, contact the AWWA’s veteran program. Scholarships, internships, and career advice in the water workforce can be found at Work for Water. Residents of New England states, can look into the Water Warriors Initiative to find assistance in certification, training, and internships. If you need help finding additional resources for your state’s certification program, contact WaterOperator.org and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

It is no secret that drinking water and wastewater utilities are facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomer generation. Nationwide, over 30-50% of the water workforce is expected to leave the industry in the next decade due to just retirements alone. However, some states, and especially those with a large percentage of smaller, rural systems such as Idaho, face even more serious shortages.

To make matters worse, it isn't always easy for new folks to get a foot in the door. High school graduates may not be aware of the water industry jobs available in their own communities, and even if they become aware, it can take a significant investment of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to become an operater.

This is why many state & local governments, community colleges, utilities and water organizations have been collaborating to develop apprenticeship training programs across the country. For example, Indiana Alliance of Rural Water runs an apprentice program as part of a larger NRWA water sector apprenticeship initiative. Their apprentices train alongside experienced technicians while earning a entry-level wage, all in the interest of creating a more robust workforce for the state.

Another water organization, the Water Environment Association, has recently been collaborating with the City of Baltimore to train young people for the water industry. The Baltimore City Water Industry Career Mentoring Program, now in its third year, is an eight-month program for 18-24 year olds that provides water industry career exploration, worksite tours and job shadowing, connections with a career coach/mentor, a summer job at Department of Public Works, and opportunities to interview for full-time, entry-level positions.

Other recent initiatives attempt to recruit workers even before they graduate from high school. A youth apprenticeship program sponsored in part by New Water in Green Bay, WI, offers students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and insights into the wastewater industry while still attending high school. NEW Water collaborates with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Northwest Technical College and area school districts for this program.

More and more municipalities are also responding to the need to plan for their futures via apprenticeship programs. The city of Prestonsburg, KY, for example, has recently announced the creation of a 3-year apprenticeship program. Their program partners with a local community college to reduce the time it takes to become a certified water or wastewater treatment operator, giving the city a competitive edge in the race to replace their retiring operators.

Finally, the rise in the need for, and popularity of, apprenticeship programs underscores the importance of continuous monitoring to ensure that apprenticeship outcomes are measuring up to expectations. According to the LA Times, an audit of the apprentice program for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power revealed that only 51% of those enrolled actually graduated, and those with the highest level of training were being recruited elsewhere.

Interested in learning about apprenticeship programs in your state? The American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation ;each have large and active job banks that are updated daily. You can type "apprentice" as a key word to find some of the opportunities out there.

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems

EPA Releases Preventive Maintenance Tools for Small Systems
USEPA has released two new/updated interactive tools to help small systems retain and organize important operator knowledge as well as keep track of regular operation and maintenance tasks. In this way, when an operator takes a vacation, retires, or leaves a system, important knowledge about the system is preserved for those taking his or her place. 

The first tool to be released is an updated version of EPA's popular Preventive Maintenance Card File tool. This 857-page easy-to-access electronic version can be tailored to a system's needs. It includes fillable pdf logs for each month as well as logs for common daily, weekly and monthly tasks. In addition, it can provide detailed information about maintenance and operation, source water, emergencies, security, treatment processes, monitoring/sampling, storage, distribution, rules/regulations, operator certification, customer complaints, technology, supplies, important people and more.

The tool can be downloaded in its entirety as a zip file, or you can download individual months/files. If your system prefers a printed format, the logs can be printed out or you can opt to print out the original 2004 Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems here.

The second new tool, piloted last summer, is the Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet for Small Water Systems, found here. This tool also captures site-specific information to help systems maintain water quality in times of transition, but in a spreadsheet format. Tabs providing information on source water, technology, certification, neighboring utilities, suppliers, distribution info and more provide critical information in a quick and easy to read format, all in one place. The spreadsheet also includes a daily production well log, conversion tables and flushing/backflow/valve-exercising schedules.


In a recent webinar featuring these resources, Melinda Norris from Idaho Rural Water talked about how she has seen utility records written on walls and left on dusty barn shelves, creating situations where years of knowledge are at risk of being lost. For her, theses new tools will increase access and encourage operators to record and preserve critical information for newly hired operators or just for those needing help on a daily basis. 

These tools were developed by the EPA's Workforce Group to address an identified critical area of need for small systems: preventing the loss of years of accumulated system knowledge when an operator retires or leaves a system.

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location

Water Operator Salaries Depend Largely on Geographic Location
Water operator salaries and wages depend largely on where operators live and work, according to statistics released by the US Department of Labor last year. And even when operators live in the same state or region, salaries can vary depending on if the operator works in or close to a major metropolitan area. Certainly according to these statistics, small town water operator salaries are not competing with those offered by larger metropolitan areas. While top salaries can approach the $70K - $90K range at some metropolitan utilities on the West Coast, top salaries in rural or non-metropolitan areas in the same areas are $10K- $20K less. And then there are larger regional differences as well. Top-paying states such as California, Connecticut, Nevada, Washington and Alaska all offer annual mean salaries over $50K while in many southern states (such as Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky) the average salary range is $25K - $40K. If you are interested in finding out where your state ranks, you can click here.
 

Other interesting geographic statistics and trends can be found on this Data USA website and includes the area of the country with the highest concentration of water/wastewater operators (Arkansas!) as well as areas with the highest paying operator jobs. If you are interested in finding out detailed salary information for your specific state, including current and projected employment numbers, concentration data, area profiles and more, check out this informative site!


Contracting a Certified Water Operator

Many small systems across the nation depend on the services of a circuit rider, also known as a contract operator. In fact, according to an article by Lori Moore, Compliance Specialist at Colorado Department of Public Health, contract operators make up an incredible 33 percent of the total number of certified water professionals who supervise public systems!

Contract operators can help ensure regulatory compliance for less complex systems that do not need a full-time operator, they can respond to emergencies, attend sanitary surveys or help fill-in when a full-time operator cannot be found in the area. 

Whatever the reason, it is important to know how to select a contract operator, and then once selected, how to communicate effectively with them. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has recently published such a guide, outlining the responsibilities of both the responsible official/owner and the certified water operator. The guide also includes a contract operator interview tool and topics for developing terms of a contract.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state offering guidelines for developing a contract. For example, here is Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation list of suggested information and requirements to include and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has it's own guide as well. Many states also offer lists of current certified contract operators, like this one

Once selected, communication with the operator is key to developing a successful relationship. Because the work contract operators do is immensely valuable, especially these days, establishing clear expectations can go a long way for everyone involved.