A highly structured internship program creates a ready pipeline of qualified operators for a Connecticut wastewater treatment plant
Bryne Ewan was just 16 years old. Keith Browne says it saved his life. For Francisco Franco Villa, English was a second language. Ben North was a college student looking for a challenge. All four now have good careers in the wastewater treatment field because of an internship program at the Thomas E. Piacenti Regional Water Pollution Control Facility in New London, Conn.
When the New London Pollution Control Authority signed a 10-year, $59 million contract with Veolia Water North America to operate and manage its wastewater and water systems in March 2008, the agreement required an intern program that would provide a source of staffing, along with educational and employment opportunities for people in the community.
Working with the city, Veolia Water has focused on mentoring and training, during which some candidates have discovered a passion for the environmental services field. The program also benefits team members at the plant, who see it as an opportunity to pass their knowledge on to the younger generation.
“The contract requires us to have two interns for 180 days every year,” explains Pete Vetter, project manager in New London for Veolia. “We looked at the workforce and could predict a regular turnover over the next five years. We use the internship program as a feeder to replace operators who leave.”
Veolia has 35 employees in New London handling everything from plant operations, water distribution and wastewater collection to meter reading, maintenance and customer service. Openings are filled from within, and the wastewater plant is the starting point for all new hires. “If we have a retirement or anyone moving up anywhere in the organization, it creates an opening at the wastewater plant,” says Vetter. “The logic of the intern program is to have qualified, trained people ready to fill those openings.”
The original New London wastewater treatment facility was built in the 1950s as a primary treatment plant. It was upgraded to secondary treatment in 1977. The plant has undergone further upgrades in the 1990s, including the addition of a third secondary clarifier and an odor-control system. The secondary process is designed to provide biological nutrient removal (BNR).
Secondary treatment is provided by a Modified Ludzack-Ettinger (MLE) process, consisting of two parallel trains of an anoxic zone and aeration zone, with internal recycle capable of four times forward flow in each train. Three secondary clarifiers are followed by disinfection with sodium hypochlorite before release to the Thames River.
The intern program plays a significant role in keeping the plant running and in compliance. Besides the two current interns, 13 people have been selected for the program since 2008, and Veolia ultimately hired nine of them. The other four left early in the process when it was clear that it was not an appropriate career choice for them. “Wastewater is something you like to do or you don’t,” says Vetter. “It’s not a match for some people and we generally find that out within a few weeks.”
Interns are required to enroll in some sort of schooling. “We’ve had some going to a local trade school, some pursuing master’s degrees, and some enrolled in a local community college,” says Vetter. “We make their work schedule flexible to accommodate their school schedule.”
The normal shift is 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Interns who have classes during the day will work before and after class — whatever it takes to gain experience — while still completing their education.
Bryne Ewan’s situation required even more flexibility, since he had just finished his junior year at a local technical high school when he joined the program. “He would come here about two days a week for two or three hours and would be in high school the rest of the time,” says Vetter. “He worked full time in the summer to complete the internship.”
Ewan was planning to go to college to study environmental science, but financial circumstances caused him to defer his education. “So we hired him,” says Vetter. “He’s the youngest employee in Veolia. He’s 17 years old now, running his own shift, and he’s one of our real successes. Right out of high school, he has a solid job, and as a full-time employee, he can receive Veolia’s tuition reimbursement benefits.
Ewan says his science teacher knew Vetter at the plant and recommended he check out the intern program. “We had learned about wastewater treatment in class,” he says, “so I already had a bit of a background in it.”
Ben North was the program’s first intern in July 2008. There were no openings in New London when he completed the program, but Veolia hired him for projects in other locations, including one with some management responsibilities, until a position opened.
“He ran our second shift for a year while going to college during the day,” says Vetter. Veolia then selected him for a position in Redding, Conn. “He has accelerated his career extremely quickly, and he became an assistant project manager after only two-and-a-half years in the industry,” says Vetter.
When he became an intern, North was in college for environmental engineering. “I was interested in the environment, making a difference and cleaning it up, but I didn’t really know how to do it,” recalls North, who is still pursuing his degree. “The intern program opened a door to a career path I knew nothing about.”
It provided knowledge and skills and something else employers are looking for — experience. “If you can’t be hired due to lack of experience, how are you ever going to get that experience?” North says. “It takes somebody to take you under their wing and show you the way.”
Making a comeback
Keith Browne, now in a maintenance position, says his job has given him valuable experience on the business side of the industry. “I’d like to keep moving up, and ideally I would like to be a project manager or a troubleshooter for the company, traveling to different plants and helping with their problems,” he says.
Vetter says all the interns have similar success stories, though Browne’s had a different beginning. He came to the plant with a troubled background, but Veolia took a chance. “We interviewed him and he seemed like a great kid, so we offered him an internship,” recalls Vetter.
Browne says, “I have a 15-month-old son now, and without this I don’t know where I’d be. Besides gaining a bunch of friends, family and a good career, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about the industry and I’ve learned how important our job is. It saved my life.”
Vetter says Browne lived up to the trust the plant placed in him and excelled. He was eventually hired as an operator, all the while studying on his own to qualify for his current position as a maintenance technician.
Browne couldn’t afford tuition to meet the education requirement, but lead operator David Cavanaugh, also president of Local 1303-395 of Council #4 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at the plant, solved that by providing Browne a personal loan. “Part of my motivation on the job is knowing that the project management took a chance on somebody with my background,” says Browne. “And without David, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
New to the country
It was persistence that earned an internship for Francisco Franco Villa, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. “English was his second language — and he was working hard to improve it when he came here,” says Vetter. “He sat outside my door two days a week for about a month looking for a job.” That convinced Vetter to offer him the next internship.
Villa, who was already going to wastewater classes one night a week at the local community college, had signed up for English classes two nights a week and math courses the other two nights.
He is now a day-shift operator and “doing extremely well,” according to Vetter. “He has a family and a couple of kids. He was working several jobs around the area before coming here. This is really his first break since coming to the United States.”
To date, all of the interns have come to New London through word of mouth. North, the first intern, later recommended a friend who had just graduated from college with a degree in political science and who was looking for a job in a tough market. That friend, Steve Zimney, had skills the plant liked and is now running a shift at Veolia’s Sikorsky Helicopter site in Stratford, Conn.
It used to take about two months to get someone ready to take over an open position at the plant, but with the intern program in place, it now gets done in two or three weeks. The plant saves money by not having to advertise job openings, there is less staff overtime for backfilling work and training replacements, and staff gets the opportunity to mentor and train young people interested in the environmental field.
Requiring an intern program as part of an operating contract is unusual, but Vetter says everyone likes it, and the concept may spread within Veolia. He recently spoke about the program at a national company meeting.
“He deserves a lot of credit for the success of this program,” says Browne. “Instead of using interns as day laborers, he really teaches us the technical aspects of the field and encourages our input from day one.”
Vetter, in turn, says the program could not succeed without the support of Local 1303 and Cavanaugh, who serves as a mentor to every intern.
“Interns spend the first couple of months with David, learning the laboratory, sampling, and the basics of the wastewater treatment plant,” says Vetter. “He and the rank-and-file have really embraced the program as a way of getting new talent, not only into the wastewater plant but into the union. It can only be successful if the union supports it.”
What started as a contract requirement has become part of the facility’s culture and has been readily embraced by all employees. Vetter says it has been a “fantastic experience for everyone, seeing these young people coming in and watching them develop a passion for the business.”