Filling the pipeline for water tech jobs

The water technology lab at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. (Photos: SCTCC)

There are a growing number of job opportunities for water technicians across the U.S. as the industry confronts a wave of retirements, yet community colleges find it challenging to attract enough students.

“There are definitely more people retiring in the field than people qualified for those jobs in Minnesota,” says instructor Gregg Kropp of St. Cloud Technical and Community College (SCTCC). The big wave of baby-boomer retirements predicted to start about 10 years ago was delayed due to the recession and is happening now, Kropp says.

“A ‘silver tide’ of requirements is drastically cutting into the pool of skilled, qualified workers in many utilities and resulting in staffing vacancies of up to 50 percent in some cases,” says a 2018 report by the Brookings Institution. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in water occupations to grow by 8 percent between 2016 and 2026.

High-tech jobs

Every municipality in Minnesota has job openings, yet it’s hard to get people into the college’s water environment technologies program, Kropp says. Part of that is because people don’t understand the water system.

“Nobody knows where water comes from. They just want it to be there when they turn on the faucet,” he says.

Also, people think a career involving sewage would be unpleasant.

“Everything is so digitized now, you don’t even come into contact with wastewater,” Kropp says. “Making wastewater clean is a lot more mentally stimulating than working with drinking water. It’s more complicated and more enjoyable.”

SCTCC offers one of only two water technology programs in Minnesota accredited by the state’s pollution control and health agencies. The program covers source water, making water potable, distribution to customers, wastewater treatment and discharge of wastewater back to the environment, along with everything water technology professionals need to know about the mechanics of pumps, motors and valves, laboratory techniques, and rules and regulations.

Students can earn an associate degree or a one-year diploma. Both credentials cover the same material on water technology – and prepare students for the state licensing exam – but the associate degree also includes general education courses.

On-the-job learning

Students in the SCTCC programs have a mandatory one-week internship at a water plant and a two-week internship as a wastewater intern. Kropp encourages them to seek additional internships on their own. Some of the paid internships are funded by Sourcewell, a nonprofit that supports rural development in central Minnesota, among other activities.

SCTCC has received donated lab equipment and old pipes for students to practice on, mostly from municipalities when they upgrade their water plants. Companies have also contributed funds for students to attend workshops and training sessions.

A water technology student at SCTCC.

Most graduates get jobs with town or city governments. But as the rules on pollution control have become more stringent, Kropp sees more job opportunities in private industry. Some manufacturers have their own water plants and use a more expensive method of treatment called reverse osmosis to produce water with less mineral content than drinking water.

Food processing companies and breweries use reverse osmosis because minerals can affect flavor, Kropp explains, while industrial plating and circuit board manufacturers use that process to ensure there are no calcium, magnesium or other deposits on their products.

A path to advancement

The water and wastewater technology department at Delgado Community College prepares students for Louisiana’s certification exams in water production, water treatment, water distribution, wastewater collection and wastewater treatment.

Jobs in those areas are in high demand due to an aging workforce and competition with higher-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry, says Tamika Duplessis at Delgado’s Sidney Collier campus. Despite growing awareness in the community of opportunities in the water industry, there are still a lot of openings.

“Replenishing that pipeline is of utmost importance,” she says.

The college worked with local water utilities to fill the education gap and develop technical certificates. The state requires a minimum of 32 hours of training for water infrastructure licenses. Based on the level of experience, water and wastewater operators in New Orleans can earn $15 an hour.

“These are gateway jobs leading to high-demand, high-wage jobs,” Duplessis says. A worker with a credential as a water treatment specialist can transfer to a four-year institution and use those skills to earn a bachelor’s degree in hydrology, geology, civil engineering or a related career. “We are just scratching the surface of what is possible.”

Current and emerging opportunities

Delgado partnered with the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans to develop the training program and plans to launch internships and apprenticeships with the board.

On average, there are 20 to 30 students a semester across five different levels of Delgado’s water and wastewater programs. That includes people already working in the industry and a cohort of dual-enrollment high school students.

The next step for the college is to develop associate degrees in water-related environmental studies, which would start in fall 2020 at the earliest.

In addition, Delgado is beginning to develop new programs to train workers for the large coastal restoration projects underway in Louisiana to protect fragile communities from rising waters in the Gulf due to climate change.

Water-related jobs in Arizona

Craig Urbanski, chair of the industrial technology division at GateWay Community College in Arizona, credits the growing number of water-related job openings to the building boom in the Phoenix area, as well as a wave of retirements. He predicts growth in the industry will increase further as the federal government begins implementing the 2018 Water Infrastructure Act, which provides grants for internships and apprenticeships, as well as funding for construction projects.

“We can definitely use more students,” Urbanski says, but that means overcoming people’s prejudice against jobs involving sewage.

Recruiting students requires getting the message out that “these jobs are high-tech,” he says. At modern water plants, operators use SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition systems) on a computer monitor to check everything from water quality to flow rates to purification levels. Wastewater techs also need to learn chemistry, biology and engineering.

GateWay offers an associate degree in water and wastewater treatment plus certificates of completion for one-year programs in water and wastewater and in environmental science technology. All of the programs prepare students for the certification exam required by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

“The chance of passing the test is fairly limited without some education,” Kropp says. The courses cover all the material on the exam, and if people have trouble passing it, they can take a noncredit workshop. The biggest challenge is math, so the program includes a course on “water technology calculations.”

There are about 40 to 50 full- or part-time students per semester in the water program. Many are transitioning out of the military or already working in the water industry and want to advance to managerial positions. Others are recent high school graduates. Women comprise about 15 percent to 20 percent of the students. Urbanski is trying to increase those numbers by inviting women to career open house events.

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The most in-demand jobs in the Phoenix area are grade-one operators who work for municipalities in water treatment, wastewater treatment, water distribution and water collection. There are also plenty of jobs at Intel’s sophisticated “ultrapure water” facility. Water tech students have opportunities for internships with the city of Phoenix and other employers. Demand is so high that some students are hired before they even complete an internship.

Urbanski is developing an apprenticeship program with several municipalities that he hopes to start for the spring 2020 semester.

Water tech jobs are not only in demand but they are stable, says Urbanski, noting that many of the people retiring now had worked at water plants for decades. Also, these jobs are recession-proof. Private companies are vulnerable to changes in the economy, but “you can’t shut down water plants,” he says.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.