Anyone in the municipal sector’s wastewater industry knows that as the rank and file reach retirement age, we need to work hard to recruit new people to manage and operate our treatment facilities.
Even with a slow economy and tight job market, certain trades are suffering from the next generation’s lack of interest and skills. My company’s affiliation with the plumbing trade makes me aware that the trades are suffering from the same lack of “new blood.” It’s even more dire in the wastewater field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment of water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded. See the discussion of the employment projections table in the Handbook introductory chapter on Occupational Information Included in the Handbook
A growing population and the increasingly suburban geography of the United States are expected to boost demand for water and wastewater-treatment services. There’s a conundrum for hiring employers. Recruits need strong math and science backgrounds and will require certification or licensing. That requires experience, but candidates with both don’t exist or have better opportunities. So what’s the solution?
Internships are a start. Wisconsin created an intern program, literally “growing their own” with the skills needed to operate a treatment plant. Funded by a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the effort is aimed to help ensure wastewater treatment plants are operated by “knowledgeable and competent individuals” according to Susan Sylvester, Director of the WI DNR’s Water Quality Division. And over in Ft. Worth, Texas, the Village Creek Water Reclamation Facility started an internship program (Treatment Plant Operator, September 2011) to help address its retiring workforce.
The reasons for so little interest in sewage treatment? It isn’t glamorous, and the rewards of keeping the public safe from disease and protecting the environment from pollution may not be enough to compensate for the modest compensation. Perhaps rebranding our treatment plants as resource recovery plants is a start. Sustainability is a buzz word these days and the idealism of youth can be cultivated to view wastewater treatment as a way to make a difference. Clean water, dwindling reserves of phosphorus, renewable energy generation and mitigation of contaminants might be viewed as challenges for the next generation to tackle. What are your ideas to help replace our aging corps of operators?
 Pete Litterski. September 2011.”Talent for the Future.” Treatment Plant Operator. P. 20-21.