Consumers tend to overlook the miracles of science that bring clean water directly to their homes and take dirty water away. If the vast machinery and advanced techniques do grab their attention, the people who operate them probably don’t. And in the rare instances that operators are recognized for the central role they play in our society’s most essential services, the institutions that imbued them with the necessary skills still remain overlooked.
Institutions like Minnesota’s St. Cloud Technical and Community College, which offers a hugely successful program that trains students for careers at water and wastewater treatment facilities. Its Water Environment Technologies Training (WETT) program was started in 1972 as a two-year course. Today, it is offered as a one-year diploma or two-year Associate of Applied Science degree.
With an anticipated need for more operators to replace retiring workers, the program was expanded from the St. Cloud, MN, campus to Eden Prairie, MN, in the Twin Cities metro area in 2004. It’s taught on a rotating basis between the two locations by instructors Bill Spain and Keith Redmond.
“The program’s primary focus is to train entry-level operators to work in municipal or industrial utilities as water and wastewater operators, maintenance mechanics, lab technicians, and distribution and collection system operators,” Spain explained. “Upon successful completion of the program, students are allowed to take the Minnesota Class D certification exams and become professional water and wastewater operators.”
The program is innovative beyond its rigorous classroom and lab training for its outside learning initiatives. Students help out with local water festivals for elementary school students, participate in American Water Works Association competitions, do service work, and maintain adopted stormwater ponds. Perhaps WETT’s greatest tool is the hands-on training it can offer operators-in-training at local plants through a week-long internship in the fall to expose them to life as an operator and a two-week internship in the spring to put their lessons in practice. Class labs also take place in the facilities.
“The Eden Prairie water treatment plant has been a very generous host and a tremendous asset for our training,” said Spain. “We have the plant right outside the door of the classroom, which enhances the training significantly … The wastewater labs are done at one of the metropolitan council facilities … The utility staff is always open to assist whenever asked.”
As a testament to the strength of the program, and perhaps the gaping need for new talent in the treatment industry, WETT’s success in finding careers for its students has been outstanding. Many students find part-time employment during their studies and are then hired after graduating. Over the last few years, the average placement rate has been 95 percent, with graduates working in every state and some in foreign countries. Their average starting pay has been about $24.50 an hour.
But despite this success, WETT struggles to enroll students who aren’t already inclined towards water and wastewater. Oftentimes, students have been summer employees at Minnesota plants who are encouraged by their managers to refine their skills.
“It has been challenging to attract students that have not been exposed to this industry, although we are always trying to find new ways to accomplish this,” Spain said. “For many years, the majority of students that enroll in this program have been made aware of it by a past graduate or someone they know that is in the water industry.”
Programs like WETT make it clear that with the right training, there are plenty of opportunities for employment in the water and wastewater treatment industries. Hopefully this will be enough to entice future generations of operators.
Image credit: "01-29 Wastewater1-js" Jesse Skoubo © 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/