Showing the Way

An operator in the State of Washington believes professionals should be ready to offer guidance to people interested in clean-water careers

Many wastewater treatment operators at work today didn’t really seek out the career — they fell into it through connections or circumstance. That’s true of Larry Littrell, an operator with the Lake Stevens (Wash.) Sewer District.

The district, about 20 miles north of Seattle, operates a 2.3 mgd (average) plant serving a residential community of about 30,000. Littrell holds Group IV certification, the state’s highest level, and is one of three full-time operators at Lake Stevens. The facility uses an activated sludge process with aerated earthen lagoons. A new plant using membrane filtration will open in about 18 months and will deliver reuse-quality water.

Littrell sees growing demand for operators as veteran professionals retire, and he believes those entering the field will need to be better educated and more technologically savvy than the first wave of operators hired in the early 1970s.

Therefore, in his opinion, the profession will need people who have specific interest in the field. His experience indicates that many young people are not aware of the opportunities in the profession and, even if they are, may not know how to go about applying for and winning positions.

Littrell believes operators should take an active role in stimulating interest in clean-water careers and in showing young, bright people how to prepare themselves for the job market and compete successfully for positions. He spoke about his ideas in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO:

Do you envision a shortage of operators in your part of the country?

Littrell:

Yes. I’ve been told that almost half of the operators in the State of Washington are going to retire in the next five years. The median age for operators is high — in the later 50s. There’s going to be a lot of turnover in the next five years.

On top of that, the industry is changing so much. Being an operator used to mean cleaning out a tank, throwing a switch. Now it’s becoming so much more technical that it’s going to be harder to get people into the plants and trained. With all the new technology coming in, we’re going to need a more diverse workforce.

TPO:

What do you observe in terms of awareness among the general public about careers in clean-water occupations?

Littrell:

In my circles, I talk with people who are out of work and want a long-term career, or with people who are working for low pay with not really great benefits. In general, people have no idea what we do. They hear wastewater, and they think you’re wading around in sludge. They don’t have any idea. Once I talk to them about the systems, they discover it’s totally different from anything they thought.

I feel a lack of vocational training for wastewater careers is a big problem. People coming out of the military or even high school can get vocational training for electrical, carpentry, welding, auto mechanics and more. Where do they go to get training in the water and wastewater fields? The industry is huge, but there is little vocational training.

TPO:

Why do operators have trouble advising interested people on how to enter the profession?

Littrell:

Several years before I came into the profession, I asked a couple of operators how to get into the field. Their answers were rather vague. My feeling was that many operators didn’t know how to get into the field because they got in through connections with relatives, or they transferred to the treatment plant from other city departments, or they just sort of fell into it.

Even when I talk to operators now about what it takes to get into this field, a lot of them really don’t know. I’m interested in having operators be aware of what it takes just to get started in the profession. You don’t have to be able to tell a prospect how to get to Group IV certification or how to become a supervisor, but it would be nice to be able to give a little more specific information about how to begin.

TPO:

How did you come into the profession?

Littrell:

I’m one of those who kind of fell into it. I worked as a corrections officer for about 10 years, first for the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe where I live, and then at a King County drug and alcohol rehab center. Then I got laid off.

At the time the county had some wastewater operator jobs available. I had always thought about that line of work. Because I was laid off, I had preference for interviewing. I had done some apartment maintenance in my past. I had done general electrical work, and some plumbing.

Those experiences helped me get one of the jobs, and that got me started in the field. Now that I’m in it, I wish I had gone into it when I was 20. I’ve now worked as an operator for King County, the City of Monroe, and Lake Stevens — 10 years in total.

TPO:

Once you were hired, what did you need to do by way of training and education?

Littrell:

I went to work at King County’s West Point treatment facility. They hired ten of us at the time. They brought in an instructor from Green River Community College who gave us essentially a wastewater operator 101 course. I passed a test and got my Operator In Training certificate. A year later I applied for an upgrade to Group I operator, and I received that. I now have Group IV certification.

TPO:

What would you advise prospective operators to do as a first step toward entering the clean-water profession?

Littrell:

I would advise them first of all to get their Operator In Training certification. By doing that, you acquire some general knowledge of what it takes to run a treatment plant, and so you can tell if you really want to get into the profession.

In our state, you can get your Operator In Training certificate with three CEUs or 30 hours of training. You can take training locally through a community or technical college, or you can take the Sacramento Volume 1 training course.

Once you pass the test and earn an Operator In Training certificate, wherever you go to apply, they know that with one year of experience you can automatically apply for an upgrade to Group I operator. Coming in off the street, that gives you an advantage over someone who doesn’t have that certification.

TPO:

So, now you’ve earned your Operator In Training certificate. What are the next steps?

Littrell:

Then it’s a matter of using any work experience or schooling you have that’s somehow related to the field — getting it on a professional resume, putting in applications, and getting an interview for a position.

When you do get an interview, one of the important things to do is to go and tour the plant. In my experience, when I have asked for a tour, I’ve never been refused. By taking the tour, you show that you’re sincerely interested. It also gives you a chance to see what processes they’re using, so you can go back and study up on those as part of your interview preparation.

TPO:

How does a prospective operator find job openings?

Littrell:

Most positions are advertised in the local newspapers. It’s also a good idea to identify the cities, towns and counties where you’re interested in working and keep an eye on their Web sites. There are also state organizations to check on. For example, in our state we have the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts and the Washington Association of Cities. They list job openings on their Web sites.

One thing to remember in looking for positions is to go ahead and apply even if you don’t meet every qualification the listing asks for. Often, a position will be posted for, say, a Group II operator with two years’ experience, but the agency will hire an Operator In Training, because they can’t find anyone with the experience they want. As an Operator In Training, you can’t apply for a manager position, but you can apply for an operator position that specifies slightly more experience than you have.

TPO:

What about the interview process itself?

Littrell:

The interview is by far the most important part of the whole process. The main thing is to be ready for it, and taking a tour helps a great deal. Also, realize that operations is becoming more and more professional, and dress the part. I’ve always believed you should dress a step up from what you’re applying for. So wear a pair of good slacks and a nice dress shirt.

Prepare as best you can. Get some information on the city or district where you’re applying so you have some general knowledge about them. Take along some questions you want to ask. At the end of the interview, they’re going ask if you have any questions.

When you walk into the room and the interviewers introduce themselves, write their names down. Afterward you’ll want to send them a note to thank them for seeing you. Above all, show your interest in wastewater operations as a career, so they know you’re not just trying to find a job for a year.

TPO:

Why is it important for operators to help steer people into the profession?

Littrell:

Because what we do is very important. One of my managers told me that wastewater operators do even more for public safety than firefighters and police officers do. Our role is extremely vital. What if we weren’t here and we were just running all the wastewater straight out into the rivers? I think we constantly need to emphasize the importance of what we do.

We may encounter a friend, or one of our wives’ co-workers, or someone else who is looking for a career. We may meet kids coming out of high school, not interested in college, looking for a trade, thinking of becoming a plumber, electrician or carpenter. They may not even know this career exists.

We should know the basics of how to get someone like that started in the right direction. A lot of operators who have been in the field for a while, who are Group II, Group III, or Group IV, may not give much thought to what it takes to enter the field. But it’s a great field, and we need good people.



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