Getting Serious

Wisconsin blazes a trail with a wastewater treatment operator apprenticeship program that mimics long-standing practices in a variety of skilled trades

The handwriting on the wall is clear: Many experienced wastewater operators will retire soon, and there aren’t enough new people coming up to replace them.

The industry is responding in a variety of ways. The Water Environment Federation and the American Water Works Association have created the Work for Water program to encourage young people and career changers to look at the water professions.

Cities and utilities have launched operator-in-training and internship programs. One excellent example of such programs is in the City of Fort Worth, Texas, and is featured in this month’s “Hearts and Minds” article.

Now, Wisconsin has upped the ante with a full-blown apprenticeship program for operators. There is a great deal to like about this offering, which is the subject of this month’s “In My Words” interview, featuring Owen Smith of the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.


True respect

Lots of treatment agencies give aspiring operators a hand up with paid internships and paid on-the-job and classroom training. Wisconsin’s program goes several big steps farther. It’s a three-year program that involves about 90 percent on-the-job training and 10 percent academic study. The classroom training requirement makes it unique among wastewater operator apprenticeships in the nation.

Perhaps the best feature of the program is that in a not-so-subtle way it confers true professional stature on wastewater operators. Consider that formal apprenticeships exist for a host of occupations:

Construction trades like carpenter, electrician, painter and decorator, plasterer, plumber, roofer, steamfitter.

Industrial occupations like maintenance electrician, machinist, metal fabricator, mold maker, pattern maker, tool and die maker.

Service occupations like barber/cosmetologist, cook and chef, correctional officer, funeral director and metering technician.

Why shouldn’t wastewater operators enjoy the same level of professional status? The mere fact of a true apprenticeship helps lift the perception of the wastewater operator as the guy in dirty overalls down at the sewage plant.


Everyone wins

Apprenticeships benefit both the trainees and the employers who ultimately hire them. The apprentices earn while they learn, receiving a living wage with health insurance, retirement and other benefits. As their skills increase, their wages also grow.

After the apprenticeship program, they earn journey-level status, which is recognized nationally. As such, journeyworkers typically can receive excellent wages and benefits anywhere in the country, as their qualifications are recognized and respected.

From the employer’s side, apprenticeships attract better-quality, more committed applicants. During the long training relationship, the employer can instill values such as loyalty, good work practices, and positive work attitudes.

When training is complete and apprentices become fully qualified journey-level employees, they tend to fit in well with the organization because they already grasp its values and work requirements. With the promise of a future, they become valuable, committed employees able to advance to more responsible positions.


Making it attractive

A key challenge to attracting bright young people to wastewater careers has been the profession’s lack of prestige. Maybe the industry looks more appealing to prospects if a position comes with the offer of a true apprenticeship.

Suddenly, wastewater operator becomes more than a job. It’s a career that confers a recognized title on par with other professions and includes a defined and built-in career track. In this respect alone, apprenticeship is a significant step forward.

It’s hard in this context to resist making a plug for my home state. Wisconsin has been a leader in developing registered apprenticeship programs. With the passage of its apprenticeship law in June 1911, Wisconsin became the first state in the U.S. to have a regulated apprenticeship program. The Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards last June celebrated the program’s 100-year anniversary.

It does appear that where wastewater treatment is concerned, Wisconsin is once again blazing a good trail.


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