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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.

Featured Video: Interviewing Basics Webinar

Featured Video: Interviewing Basics Webinar

In this week’s blog post, we’d like to feature an excellent webinar recording hosted and published by CA Water Pros with the California Water Environment Association and California-Nevada Section AWWA. The webinar introduces both incoming water professionals and those seeking new industry positions to some interview best practices that will help any operator stand out above the competition during a job hunt. The webinar is presented by Todd Novacek, Director of Operations at the Moulton Niguel Water District. Todd frequently interviews professionals for the District and started putting together popular interview questions with his favorite answers when his son received his Water Distribution II certificate.

From the video job seekers will learn how their social skills, attire, attitude, honesty, and pre-interview research can make all the difference in a first impression. Todd stresses the importance of gauging an audience and making every interview question count. You’ll learn popular questions that can likely be expected during an interview at a water district. These questions will help you start thinking of your own answers now. Remember that questions can vary with utility size, location, and job requirements. As Todd emphasizes, you should know the facility you’re applying to before the interview. Even when you feel that you’re already the best candidate for the job, practicing and preparing beforehand will demonstrate your dedication to the position.

Once an operator fulfills their certification and educational requirements, interviewing at utilities can seem like a completely different challenge that neither training workshops nor any workbook has adequately prepared them for. This one hour webinar is worth the time and will help operators start a new aspect to their professional development, interviewing.

Professional Recognition Opportunities for Water & Wastewater Operators

Professional Recognition Opportunities for Water & Wastewater Operators

Water and wastewater operators in responsible charge are required to hold an operating license issued by their primacy agency equivalent to or greater than the classification of their treatment system. This certificate ensures that the operator has demonstrated the skills and knowledge necessary to operate and maintain their facility. Each primacy agency sets its own licensing requirements, ultimately targeted at safeguarding public health and the environment.

In addition to a primacy issued license, there are many operators that look to other forms of professional certification to set themselves apart from their peers. While there are a variety of ways to demonstrate excellence in the industry, many operators enjoy the format of professional certificate programs. These programs are not often recognized by primacy agencies, however they demonstrate that an operator has taken the initiative to learn more about their field and develop additional skills that can be utilized in operations, treatment, or management.

Shaun Livermore is an operations manager of the Utilities Authority for the Parch Band of Creek Indians. He recently obtained Utility Management Certification with Water University. After taking the program Shaun concluded that the certificate is a good tool to help operators make the jump into management. He notes that, the utility management certification does give me validation that I have the knowledge to be in utility management. It is also a way to demonstrate that to others. The requirement of degrees for higher level positions at utilities is often a barrier for highly capable individuals that could more adequately perform the duties of the position. This practice will continue to change moving into the future, but affordable programs like this one and Professional Operator designation will be a way to measure the aptitude for upward mobility of developing operators. It is something that I hope to see on more job descriptions in the future.   

Programs like these often require more training than the average operator license. Upon request, some states may allow the training to be used toward an operator's certification. If you’re interest in a professional certificate, we will review a few programs available to water operators in this blog.

Professional Operator (PO)
Provider: Association of Boards of Certification – Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP)
About: The PO certificate was the first professional designation created for operators. To earn the PO title, operators must pass a certification exam and meet specific educational and professional experience requirements.
Certificate Options: Certificates include water treatment, distribution, collection, and wastewater treatment. Each option consists of four certification classes ranging from Class I to Class IV. The highest class reflects the highest level of job complexity and operational requirements.
Certificate Requirements: Each OP class has different certification requirements. Check them out here.
Cost: As of now, the application ranges from $145-$195 while the exam costs $67. This cost does not factor in the continuing education training that could be necessary to meet PO certification qualifications.
Re-certification: Required every 2 years.

Water University’s Utility Management Certification (UMC)
Provider: National Rural Water Association
Certificate Options: Utility Management Certification
About: The Utility Management Certification is the first professional certificate to recognize an operator’s knowledge and skills in the management of a water or wastewater utility. The certification program is designed to evaluate a participant’s education, work experience, and training.
Certificate Requirements: The certification process starts when an applicant submits their education, industry experience, and training history. Each experience is assigned a point value that must ultimately add up to 100. Once an operator confirms their 100 points, they will take a certification exam.
Cost: The program costs $250 in addition to any training necessary to meet the 100 points of experience that might not already be met.
Re-certification: Renewal is required every 3 years and costs $125. Certificate holders must complete 40 hours of additional training. After five renewals the certificate does not expire.

WQA Water Treatment Industry Professional Certification
Provider: Water Quality Association (WQA)
Certificate Options: Certificates types include water specialist, master water specialist, and water treatment representative.
About: The WQA certification is a voluntary credentialing process that can demonstrate an operator’s commitment to higher education, professional growth, and customer service.
Certificate Requirements: To achieve any WQA certified designation, the candidate must complete the appropriate course work, pass a comprehensive exam, and abide by the WQA Code of Ethics for the Water Quality Improvement Industry.
Cost: Enrollment costs $315-$815 which includes a 1-year subscription to the learning modules required for certification. The exam ranges from $145 to $320.
Re-certification: Certificates must be renewed every three years. Re-certification requires a renewal fee and to have obtained three approved credits during the certificate cycle.

There are an increasing number of professional certificate opportunities available to the water industry. These programs are growing in diversity, focus, and program format. As operators look to these programs for development, they should identify a program that will be best suited to their previous experiences and future career goals.

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.

Tools and Resources for Workforce Planning

Tools and Resources for Workforce Planning

Workforce planning is an essential step in any small system’s asset management plan. Just as your utility cannot run without functioning infrastructure, services will not continue in the absence of a talented, knowledgeable operator. Without developing and facilitating workforce development plans, you risk the short and long-term security of your system and your customer's health.

That being said, workforce planning can often seem overwhelming. Many rural systems rely on just a few people to take on the many positions that keep a system running. If those employees left, much of their system knowledge would be lost with no one capable to take over. Yet the struggle to find and retain talent for small systems won’t get any easier without action.

In this blog post, we’ll review helpful resources for small systems in succession planning, knowledge transfer, employee hiring and retention, and talent attraction.

Succession planning can become considerably less overwhelming when you invest a small amount of time each day to increase your knowledge of workforce development. This white paper by the the New York Water Environment Association summarizes the resources needed for succession planning. To actually develop your own plan, this one hour webinar by the Environmental Finance Center covers how to write and implement a plan by evaluating your utility’s workforce condition, identifying critical positions, understanding employee life cycles, and facilitating leadership development plans.

An important step identified in any succession plan involves implementing knowledge management techniques to retain critical employee institutional knowledge. An article from Kansas Rural Water Association’s The Kansas Life Line describes how employees can make small changes to their day to create digital workflow records that can be easily found by future employees. The EPA has also developed a knowledge retention tool operators can use to consolidate utility information onto one document.

Among the challenges associated with discovering new talent, managers must also learn better practices for recruiting and retaining new employees. The Environmental Finance Center has written a useful blog that describes how to hire utility staff through online job networks and how to retain those employees through performance evaluations. For a more in-depth resource on talent recruitment and retention, the Water Research Foundation partnered with the EPA to publish research findings on operator and engineer recruitment strategies. Chapter five lists the strategies developed from their research. For a video geared more toward small systems, check out the Environmental Finance Center’s one hour webinar on recruiting new staff.

To recruit and retain employees, managers will have to understand generational differences. While these differences can seem daunting, an Environmental Finance Center blog points out that many other generations in their twenties were labeled with a similar stigma. The article debunks many misconceptions about millennials.

When it comes to any age group, utilities find that a lack of awareness about the profession makes hiring new talent in the water sector difficult. Though many states, local governments, colleges, and water organizations are working to draw interest to this career path, small water utilities can also participate.

The Work in Water program at Wichita State teaches utilities how to engage schools and develop internships while offering mini-grants to cover program costs. If you’re interested in developing your own internship program, you can also check out the internship guidebook developed by Baywork for their own program. In addition utilities can work with their local Rural Water Association’s apprenticeship program to take on apprentices. Military veterans are another group utilities can recruit since they already possess a series of practical professional skills. The American Water Works Association has created a 12 page guide that provides veteran recruiting tips

Every workforce development plan is unique. With these resources, it's left up to you and your facility to determine what methods will best achieve the goals set for your community.

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Featured Video: Becoming a Water Operator

Succession planning in the water industry has led to a growing demand for new operators. In addition to job security, the career path offers great benefits and opportunities to develop professionally while directly improving local communities. 

In this 10 minute interview by California Water Jobs, a successful operator describes the plans he accomplished to become an operations technician foreman for the Desert Water Agency. Before his career in water, Emmanuel Sarpong worked as a Field Radio Operator for the U.S. Marine Corps. He notes that his experience in the military gave him the discipline, communication skills, and problem solving abilities essential for utility operations and maintenance. A workday for Emmanuel is always changing, whether he’s putting treatment filters back on line, collecting water samples, or even pushing a broom for an upcoming tour.

To become an operator, Emmanuel began employment with a water utility as a general worker in construction. During this time he took correspondence courses with the state of California to obtain the certification that would allow him to advance into operations. He discusses his mentor Tom, an experienced foreman who trusted him to tackle projects that trained him in the skills he uses everyday. Emmanuel’s advice to operators is to keep pushing for higher levels of certification. 

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

What's on the Drinking Water Radar for the Year Ahead: 2019

Being a small-town water operator is not easy; it is up to you to ensure the quality of your community's water day-in and day-out, often with very limited resources. Let WaterOperator.org help you meet the challenge head-on with this list of tools and resources to put on your radar for the year ahead:

  • Have you gotten in the groove yet with the new RTCR requirements? Here are two new documents from the USEPA designed to help small public water systems: Revised Total Coliform Rule Placards and a Revised Total Coliform Rule Sample Siting Plan with Template Manual. Additional compliance help, including public notification templates, a RTCR rule guide, a corrective actions guidance and more can be found here.
  • While we know your hands are full just getting the job done, there are new and emerging issues you may have to deal with in the year ahead. For example, this past year many communities have been dealing with PFAS contamination issues. This ITRC website provides PFAS fact sheets that are regularly being updated on PFAS regulations, guidance, advisories and remediation methods. Especially of interest is this excel file that has begun to list the different state standards and guidance values for PFAS in drinking water as they are developed. Be sure to check back often for updates.
  • Your utility may also have to adjust to new compliance rules in the coming year. In Michigan, for example, a new Lead and Copper Rule arising from the water crisis in Flint has gone into effect, making it the strictest in the nation. Other states, such as Ohio, have also adopted tougher standards, or are now requiring schools to test for lead. Oregon has established temporary rules that will require drinking water systems in the state using certain surface water sources to routinely test for cyanotoxins and notify the public about the test results.
  • With a warming climate, these incidences of harmful algal blooms in surface water are on the increase, causing all sorts of challenges for water systems that now have to treat this contaminant. This cyanotoxin management template from the EPA can help assist you with a plan specific to your location.
  • Worker turnover and retirements will still be an issue in 2019. According to this article, the median age for water workers in general (42.8 years) and water treatment operators specifically (46.4 years) are both above the national average across all occupations (42.2 years). You can keep transitions as smooth as possible by using EPA's Knowledge Retention Tool Spreadsheet and/or this Electronic Preventive Maintenance Log.
  • New Tech Solutions: A UMass lab focusing on affordable water treatment technologies for small systems will be rolling out its Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory in 2019 for on-site testing. In addition, the facility is testing approaches to help communities address water-quality issues in affordable ways. "Early next year, in the maiden voyage of the mobile water treatment lab, UMass engineer David Reckhow plans to test ferrate, an ion of iron, as a replacement for several water treatments steps in the small town of Gloucester, MA.

But even without all these challenges and new ideas for the future, simply achieving compliance on a day-to-day basis can be tricky - if this sounds familiar, you may want to check out our recent video on how operators can approach the most common drinking water compliance issues.

Ethics for Small Water Systems

Ethics for Small Water Systems
Being a small town operator takes strong character and a community spirit, but there are always those few who make it rough on all of us. Whether it is doctoring compliance reports, siphoning off grant money for personal use, or, as this recent news article reports, using inside knowledge and/or tools to avoid water bills, water operators can sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

That is certainly what happened in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, back in 2000. According to the inquiry report, water operators there "engaged in a host of improper operating practices, including including failing to use adequate doses of chlorine, failing to monitor chlorine residuals daily, making false entries about residuals in daily operating records, and misstating the locations at which microbiological samples were taken. The operators knew that these practices were unacceptable and contrary to MOE guidelines and directives.  In the end, over 2300 people (about half the population of the town!) contracted a virulent strain of E. Coli, and 7 people ended up dying. 

While this example is extreme, it is a good reminder that unethical behavior can result in very real, and tragic, consequences, for the community as well as for the operators involved - and this goes for even small oversights or infractions. This is why it is important to be reminded of ethical responsibilities on a regular basis, whether through required trainings, or a review of an operator Code of Ethics. 

Wondering what is included in a Operator's Code of Ethics?  Some states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia offer them, as do some operator's association such as the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association and the New England Water Works Association (they also have one for laboratory personnel). NEWWA also has a list of offenses that should invoke enforcement action against operators, including suspension or revocation of certification. In addition, NEIWPCC has a report on the results of a nationwide survey on how operator discipline & rule enforcement is conducted. 

It is also a good idea to attend ethics trainings when they are available in your area. You can check for these trainings using the keywork "ethics" (and then click on "view list") on our event calendar

We here at WaterOperator.org are interested in finding more about how to support ethical conduct at small systems - not just for board members or government officials, but for everyone involved in producing or cleaning water in the interest of public health. See our ethics checklist above for ideas about how to support ethical behavior at your water system, and let us know if you have additional ideas.