Professional Stature

Wisconsin’s new wastewater operator apprentice program aims to add to the industry talent pool with a three-year hands-on training regimen

Perhaps no issue is more important in the clean-water profession than replacing experienced operators who will soon retire. Cities and agencies are trying a range of remedies, from high school and technical college outreach to formal internship programs, some with potential to lead directly into careers.

Now the State of Wisconsin is offering a full-blown apprenticeship program for wastewater treatment operators under the auspices of the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards (BAS) and the state Department of Natural Resources.

The three-year apprenticeships consist of 90 percent on-the-job training under the supervision of an experienced operator, along with 10 percent related classroom instruction. The program covers core topics needed by all wastewater operators, and additional topics unique to the employer. The program opened to applicants in August.

Apprentices are paid to learn on the job and to attend related classes. Wages increase progressively. Upon completing the program, the apprentice receives a recognized, portable credential as a journey-level (highly skilled) worker, according to Owen Smith, SAGE outreach coordinator with the BAS.

The wastewater treatment operator apprenticeship is funded by a $6 million grant given by the U.S. Department of Labor and administered by the state. The program was driven by the impending retirement of many wastewater operators and the lack of new operators entering the profession. Smith talked about the program with TPO.

TPO: Is Wisconsin the first state to offer a program like this?

Smith: We are not the first to offer an apprenticeship program for this trade, but our program is the first of its kind nationally. That’s because it follows a hybrid model in which the apprentice learns each duty and task for a required minimum number of hours and then must demonstrate competency to an experienced operator before continuing.

Traditional apprenticeship programs are time-based, meaning an apprentice operator would learn a specific duty at the plant for a larger quantity of hours, say, 500 hours, after which he or she would be considered to know the skill and could continue in the program.

TPO: How does this apprenticeship differ from some of the formal internship programs we see around the industry?

Smith: An apprenticeship is unique in that it is first and foremost a job. Apprentices learn directly under the supervision of experienced operators, 90 percent of the time on the job. They are also paid to attend related instruction in a classroom setting. Our program covers 6,000 hours, or about three years, and it is designed to incorporate operator certifications in subclasses.

TPO: Who and what drove the creation of this program, and how long has it been in development?

Smith: Industry drives apprenticeships in terms of what programs are offered and what content is included. Leaders of wastewater treatment plants and representatives of the DNR approached our bureau about two years ago, concerned with the impending retirements of operators and the lack of trained replacements in the pipeline. The bureau of course was happy to lend assistance.

About a year later, we solicited the SAGE (Sector Alliance for the Green Economy) grant, which is a State Energy Sector Partnership grant. It’s focused on meeting the labor needs of the energy sector. Our proposal included developing new apprenticeship programs for occupations that we considered inherently green, and that is certainly true of wastewater treatment operations.

TPO: What input did the wastewater profession and the DNR have in developing the internship program?

Smith: The program content was developed by skilled operators with consultation from the DNR. The industry’s input was very extensive. The program design and content were developed by the bureau and an industry focus group that includes representatives from eight treatment plants, two independent trainers, staff from Moraine Park Technical College and the Wisconsin Technical College System, and the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association (WWOA). The design process was facilitated by a third-party organization, Worldwide Instructional Design System.

We began in October of last year with the rather involved process of defining the occupation of wastewater treatment operator in terms of its key duties and key tasks. That involved skilled operators discussing exactly what an operator does.

Once our focus group came to consensus on the occupation description, we had a much larger sample of operators validate that. The next step was to determine what duties and tasks would be best learned by an apprentice on the job and which would be best learned in classroom instruction. We also discussed fundamentals an apprentice should be required to learn, such as basic chemistry.

TPO: Who will actually provide the classroom instruction?

Smith: The instruction will be provided by Moraine Park Technical College. They helped us determine which existing courses would be appropriate for the apprentices and whether new courses needed to be developed. It turned out that no new courses were needed. We’ll use programs within the school’s existing associate degree program. And, even better, they’ll be offered online and so easily accessible to plants throughout the state, especially plants in remote areas.

TPO: Is the on-the-job training highly structured, or is it largely at the discretion of the host facility?

Smith: For the on-the-job portion, the focus group determined a core set of duties and tasks that are applicable to the target plants, which are facilities with flows of 1 mgd or less. We chose to target facilities of that size because they represent about 85 percent of the facilities in the state and were determined by our industry representatives to have the greatest need for new operators. However, because the duties taught are central to the wastewater operator occupation, those skills will meet the needs of mid-sized and large plants, as well.

TPO: What do you feel a formal apprenticeship program does for the stature of the clean-water profession?

Smith: We feel it gives the industry a very strong, recognized journeyworker credential, in addition to providing a very high-quality pipeline for future operators. The availability of the recognized, portable credential is one of the biggest benefits of an apprenticeship program.

TPO: Will the journeyworker credential specifically in wastewater treatment be recognized across state borders in the same manner as, say, a tool and die maker or machinist journeyworker status?

Smith: We are very confident that this credential will be recognized and portable within Wisconsin and beyond because our program is approved by the national Office of Apprenticeship within the U.S. Department of Labor. That means the journeyworker card an apprentice will receive upon completing the program is a recognized credential in other states, whether or not they have similar programs.

That aside, a prospective employer would certainly see value in an apprentice who has completed three years of progressive on-the-job training in addition to related classroom instruction, all developed by the industry.

TPO: How will apprentices’ pay compare with that of established operators?

Smith: Apprentices earn a percentage of what the bureau calls the skilled wage rate, which is the rate paid to the greatest number of skilled operators at the host facility or the rate specified in a bargaining agreement. Generally apprentices begin by earning at least 50 percent of a skilled operator’s wage, and then that wage increases throughout the apprenticeship. However, the apprentice wage scale must average 60 percent of the skilled wage rate over the term of the apprentice contract. Upon completion of the program, the apprentice earns the wage of a skilled operator, according to the plant’s compensation schedule or bargaining agreement.

TPO: What have you seen so far in terms of response to this program from clean-water agencies and from prospective apprentices?

Smith: Our first indication of interest in this program was the number of plants that were represented in our focus group, and the range of plants. We also had several well-known industry trainers involved. Several plants in our focus group are already very interested in hiring apprentices. One plant actually postponed hiring until the apprentice program began. We have been doing a statewide outreach effort and survey of interest to all plants in the state.

TPO: How will the apprentice program dovetail with state treatment operator certification and licensing requirements?

Smith: At the same time our bureau was designing the program, the DNR was proposing changes to the regulations that govern operator certification. As part of the program design, they advised us and our focus group about how the program could incorporate testing and the granting of certifications in certain subclasses.

A subclass is a unit process at a treatment plant — such as activated sludge and disinfection. The DNR issues certifications in the various subclasses, and the operator in charge of a plant must be certified in the subclasses relevant to that plant.

Certifications for a group of core subclasses common to most if not all plants will be incorporated into the apprenticeship program. Therefore, apprentices will be well positioned to attain the level of operator in charge, especially at smaller plants.

TPO: How will you be promoting this offering, especially to young people graduating from high school and technical college, or to career changers?

Smith: The bureau has an apprenticeship training representative in each region of the state who will be engaged in outreach to the industry. The training will be overseen by an industry advisory committee, and that committee will also conduct outreach. The individual treatment plants will also conduct their own recruiting.

TPO: What is the structure and role of the industry advisory committee?

Smith: Most apprenticeships have an industry advisory committee to oversee the operations of the program. They’re also involved in tracking the program’s progress and suggesting changes in the training. This committee consists of members of our focus group. So on the committee we will have a number of skilled operators from plants of various sizes as well as representatives of WWOA.

TPO: What will the actual apprentice hiring process look like?

Smith: The first step will be for the apprentice applicant to get hired by a plant, because apprenticeship is first and foremost a job. Then the bureau will help the plant and the apprentice execute the actual contract.

TPO: Do you have targets for the number of apprentices you would like to see brought in over a certain period of time?

Smith: We have training goals for the first two years of the program. We project 35 apprentices in both the first and second years. We would be very excited to hit that.



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