Why are engineers and operators often at odds? The reason may have to do with different ways of thinking and seeing the world

I think there may be an imaginary place — a time or a crossroad of life — where some of us unconsciously decide to take the path toward operations, and others toward engineering. I’d like to share this perspective.

I’ve worked in the wastewater treatment field 28 years, at a variety of treatment plants in various positions. I have found in common at every facility the negative opinion operators and engineers hold about each other. I’ve been fascinated (and sometimes disheartened) at the low esteem in which some operators hold engineers, and vice versa.

Not every operator dislikes engineers, and plenty of engineers get along quite well with operators. But it seems these folks are a minority. I’ve concluded that this may be due to different modes of thinking. Perhaps my experience will illustrate.

## Struggles with math

When I started in wastewater treatment, I found that the algebra I couldn’t grasp in high school suddenly made sense, as I could apply it to the world of biomass. Today I teach treatment plant operators and trainees all aspects of the profession, including math, and I really enjoy helping operators ‘get it.’

Because I enjoy teaching and learning, I decided to become more proficient as a trainer, especially with chemistry. My wife and I enrolled at a local college, and now, two nights per week, I sit in class with a few other adult learners, along with students just beginning their college careers.

I find the math is still somewhat difficult and not always clear. During a discussion with our instructor, one student made an analogy using grapes. What he said made complete sense to me, but our teacher said no — he was incorrect because he wasn’t following some basic math rules. Specifically, when a number has an exponent of zero, the result is always 1. (40 = 1, or 500 = 1). As in this case, some math rules don’t seem to make sense — but they are the rules.

This was where I happened upon the imaginary breakpoint, or crossroads, between operators and engineers. Operators see things logically; engineers can see things mathematically, or theoretically.

I discussed this concept with my wife and she replied: “Yes, that’s right. Think about an ant. An ant can carry many times its own body weight, much more than a human can. It doesn’t seem logical that it could, but it can. We can use math to explain the structure of the ant and its ability to carry so much weight.

“It’s the same if an ant falls off a desk. The desk is thousands of times taller than the ant, but when he lands on the ground, he still goes about his ant business. If a man falls the same proportional distance, he goes splat on the ground. We can explain this mathematically, even though it doesn’t seem logical.”

## Reaching the fork

At some random point in life, we may reach a fork in the path of education. I believe that when learning math, a person sees things either logically (like an operator) or conceptually (like an engineer). A person who can think theoretically can see the equations and algebra as they are taught, and the subject comes relatively easy. That’s not the case for others.

For instance, when my high school algebra teacher wrote the equation x = a + b, and told us to substitute some number for a and b, I was immediately lost: Why not just put the numbers in the equation, instead of using letters? Letters are letters and numbers are numbers, I thought. But most classmates followed along with little to no problem.

It seems that as engineers follow a higher educational path through life, and as operators gain their real-world experience, the division between them becomes greater. At some point, operators begin believing that engineers don’t know how to operate a treatment plant and don’t have any common sense. Engineers begin believing that operators don’t have the same level of education and therefore are not qualified to design a treatment plant, suggest improvements, or make operational decisions.

Operators think engineers won’t listen to their ideas; engineers think operators lack the knowledge to understand why some of their ideas won’t work. These two cultures exist today and can cause problems with the operation of a treatment plant.

## Theory and reality

An article describing several specific examples of these problems appeared in the December 2010 issue of TPO magazine. Written by engineers, plant supervisors and operators, the article included this sentence: “Better communication between operators and engineers can mean more people-friendly treatment plant designs.”

A good friend who is an engineer once told me that most engineers are good at math and can calculate almost anything. “Designing a treatment plant to handle a known amount of gallons with a known organic strength, to meet known effluent standards, and to continue to meet these standards at high flows, comes easy to engineers since it is all based in math,” she observed.

“But when microbiology is added to this equation, the math gets a little fuzzy. Poor-settling sludge due to bacteriological bulking is difficult to calculate, and therefore the clarifiers might not work as designed.”

That’s where plant operators seem to excel: They have a unique ability to make the plant work, no matter how it’s designed. Operators can literally make or break an engineer’s brilliant design. A professional engineer recently shared his view on this: “An aerospace engineer can design a wonderful aircraft, but it takes trained pilots to make the plane fly.”

## Toward common aims

So what’s the point of all this? If we are to achieve the common goal of clean water and environmental protection, we must all work together. By seeing where we come from and how we arrived at where we are today, we can move forward with a better understanding.

We obviously have different skill sets, yet each profession depends on the other to accomplish a common task. Communication is a two-way street, and it works best when we listen to what is being said.

If we choose to continue with negative opinions of each other and communicate poorly as a result, we all lose, and the environment suffers. So let’s begin listening, showing a little respect for each other’s profession and opening the lines of communication. In the end, we’ll all reap the rewards of well-designed and operated treatment plants that achieve compliance at minimal cost.