Talent for the Future

Fort Worth’s Village Creek Water Reclamation Facility works with student interns to prepare them for clean-water careers
Talent for the Future
Student intern Salvador Cisneros takes part in supervised lab sessions.

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Several years ago, managers at the City of Fort Worth’s Village Creek Water Reclamation Facility saw a looming challenge: Many employees were nearing retirement.

As part of the solution, they worked with the local school district to develop an internship program that in its third year has already produced one new treatment operator.

“Our workforce was aging and at the same time when we had vacancies, we felt we weren’t getting applicants that would give us a good pool to choose from,” recalls Sebastian Fichera, assistant water director and the top executive at Village Creek.

Many job seekers lacked the math, science and communications skills needed to be effective operators. The managers started brainstorming. Because of new technology and more advanced treatment processes at Village Creek, they saw an opportunity to prepare for the future.


Eager to help

The 166 mgd (design) Village Creek facility serves 23 north Texas communities with a combined population of about one million. It discharges into the West Fork of the Trinity River, and during dry months its effluent can account for up to 95 percent of the stream’s flow.

“We thought we could start replacing some retiring operators with applicants who were more technologically oriented, better prepared for the changes in our processes,” Fichera says.

The Fort Worth Independent School District welcomed the interest in an internship program and put the utility in touch with educators at Diamond Hill Jarvis High School. There, assistant principal Daniel Goodner and career and technology instructor Rebecca McDonald are now gearing up for the third year of the program. The first year, five interns worked for one semester. In 2010-11, the program expanded to a full academic year.

Seventeen students took a plant tour in mid-May as the first step in the application process for 2011-12. They returned to school in early June for interviews, after which two interns were to be named. “Normally, we’ll accept four, but next year we need to keep it to just two because we will have a lot of construction going on,” Fichera says. “Hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to expand this concept to the water side and eventually to field operations, too.”


Earning respect

Fichera is impressed with the students: “The kids they are bringing us are sharp, they’re real sharp.” Jerry Pressley, superintendent of maintenance and operations at Village Creek, agrees. Some employees were apprehensive about having students tagging along, but the students quickly earned the operators’ respect. Students do some job shadowing but also have assigned duties and are expected to perform professionally.

“I think we’ve given these kids some good real-world experience,” Pressley says. “I think we’re doing ourselves a real favor by showing them what’s involved in keeping a city going.”

Goodner says the internship is a good fit for students who excel at problem solving but sometimes falter under the traditional classroom approach. “If you give them a real task, they have the intelligence to study it and find a solution,” he says. “These kids are overlooked a lot, but they are great. If you put a challenge to them, they rise to the top.”

The program has already produced one full-time employee. Edgar Tavera, a 2009 intern, has earned his Texas Class D wastewater treatment operator license and is preparing to take the test for his Class C license.

Students take the state’s 20-hour basic wastewater operations class in two-hour blocks during the first semester and the 20-hour wastewater treatment class the second semester. “Several months after they graduate, they will be eligible to take a test for the Class D license because the time they spend in the internship counts toward the practical experience the state requires,” says Ginger Laird, a trainer at Village Creek.

Tavera’s decision to stay at Village Creek was great news to Fichera: “That was one of our goals — that at least one of the students would stay.”

Mary Gugliuzza, media relations and communications coordinator for the Fort Worth Water Department, says former interns who continue their education could still become recruits. “The other students from the first class all went on to college, but this could affect their long-term career decisions,” she says. “There are a whole lot of careers in this industry for college graduates — engineers, biologists, chemists.”


Attractive pay

As they neared the end of their 2010-11 internships, Katina Booker and Salvador Cisneros said their favorite tasks involved the collection of samples. “I like taking samples at the aeration basins,” says Booker, who is headed to college. “I don’t like to sit around. Taking the samples keeps me busy.”

Cisneros, who has applied for a full-time job at Village Creek, prefers taking samples at the aerobic digesters, “because you can go underground and it’s interesting down there.” He says the internship put his education to a practical test, as it involved extensive use of science.

Both students say classmates sometimes kidded them about their work at a treatment plant, but that changed as those students learned more about what the jobs involved.

Cisneros says that’s especially true when friends learn the pay rates. “They’ll be working at fast-food places with awful hours, and they’re not making near as much as we do,” he says.

The interns finish traditional classes by 1 p.m. and are required to be at work from 2 to 6 p.m. each school day. In addition to a paycheck, they get three academic credits for the combination of classroom work and practical experience.

Because of the practical application of scholastic skills, McDonald says, “Our goal would be to have a science credit directly tied to this in the future.”


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