On His Way

A youth apprenticeship with NEW Water in Green Bay gives Brandon Burton an excellent start toward a career in clean water.
On His Way
Brandon Burton, youth apprentice (left), counts Scott Thompson, operations trainer, among his mentors at NEW Water in Green Bay.

At the tender age of 16, Brandon Burton is solidly on a path toward a career in the clean-water profession.

Meanwhile, his employer, NEW Water (the new identity for the Green Bay [Wis.] Metropolitan Sewerage District), has found a way to groom potential replacements for operators who will retire in the next few years. "It's definitely a win-win," says Bruce Bartel, treatment manager for the district's two treatment plants, which process 38 mgd.

Burton, a junior at Green Bay Southwest High School, is the first student enrolled in the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce Youth Apprenticeship program in Wastewater Treatment, which is serving as a pilot for a statewide program to be offered through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

During the two-year apprenticeship, Burton attends regular high school classes and takes courses at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. He also works about 12 hours a week (and full time in summer) at the treatment plant. At the end of 2012, he had logged nearly 500 hours of hands-on duty. Work at the plant pays the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, with a modest performance-based raise at the midpoint of the program.

Burton appears certain about making wastewater treatment a career. "I plan to finish my course work at NWTC and after high school go to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and major in Environmental Science," he says. "After that, I intend to become an operator at a wastewater treatment plant and move up through the ranks."

For his part, Bartel sees the apprenticeship program as part of the answer to the growing shortage of operators. "People in the wastewater field aren't getting any younger," he says. "This was my vision of how to get some younger folks involved in this industry and encourage them to make a career out of it."

Reaching out

Bartel calls the youth apprenticeship his own brainchild, but he credits Scott Thompson, operations trainer, with doing the majority of the work to get the program going. They started in December 2011 by exploring the idea with the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Green Bay Area Public School District. Next came outreach to science classes at Green Bay Southwest High, where Rod Bohm, principal, and science faculty members were quick to embrace the apprenticeship concept.

In spring 2012, Thompson teamed with Lisa Schmelzer, who administers the Chamber's broader Youth Apprenticeship Program serving 16 industries, to introduce the wastewater apprenticeship to Southwest High science classes. Operator Jenny Pagel and Lori Peacock, career/technical education and counseling coordinator for the school district, did likewise.

NEW Water later held a preview night and tour at the treatment plant, attended by eight students and their parents. In the end, Burton and Southwest High junior Jacob Price applied for the apprenticeship.

As part of the process, each had to write a letter telling why he wanted to be in the program; the parents had to write a similar letter on their sons' behalf. The applicants also had to submit three letters of reference from a guidance counselor and teachers explaining why they would be well-suited for the program.

After final interviews, conducted by Bartel, Thompson and Amy Kox, associate dean of energy and sustainability at NWTC, Burton was selected. Bartel notes that Price is also officially in the program and takes NWTC classes just as Burton does — however, there is no work available for him at the treatment plant.

On the job

Burton began his apprenticeship in July 2012. He has taken classes in pneumatics and hydraulics in NWTC's Environmental Engineering program, receiving time off from high school to attend.

At the treatment plant, he doesn't just run errands, sweep floors and cut grass — he's involved in many phases of daily operation. During a typical school day, he works at the plant from about 4 to 7 p.m.

"I usually start by taking the samples around the plant," Burton says. "Once I finish with that, I'll go see what's on the non-routine task list and take care of some of those. Then I'll accompany one of the operators on their final rounds. They'll explain a plant process to me. The next time I'm with them, they'll take me back to that spot and I'll tell them what I know about what they told me. It's like a test.

"When something goes wrong, that's when I really start learning about the plant. I get to see inside the equipment and learn how to fix things. One day, a grit screw was broken down and filled with water. Operator Mike Gardner and I siphoned the water out with a hose and cleaned the grit out. He showed me how to troubleshoot it and make the repair."

While the focus early in the internship has been on basic operations, that will change. "He's doing dissolved oxygen profiles, he's analyzing for solids content in our cake solids, and he's doing a lot of the operational tasks," says Bartel. "As we move along, he'll spend time in our lab. He'll spend some time with our engineering team.

"We plan to get him some exposure to field services, which is our collection systems people. And he'll spend some time with our mechanics and electricians. Whatever departments and functions we have here, he'll be exposed to over the two-year period."

Looking ahead

The skills he's learning fit with Burton's interests in the sciences and mechanics, and with his appreciation for the environment. "I guess you'd call me an outdoorsman," he says. "I like to kayak. I like to fish. Now I get to help clean the water before it goes out to the Fox River and give the fish a hand.

"Before I got here, I never knew how much was involved in treating water once it went down the sewer. Now that I do know about it, it's really interesting. There's a lot of troubleshooting that goes on. I like figuring things out. Working here always presents new challenges. The operators are great people. I've learned a lot from them, and I hope one day I'll be their co-worker."

Burton's schooling and work experience are helping prepare him to take the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources operator license exam, after which he could become certified as an operator-in-training. He would need more on-the-job experience to qualify as a full-fledged operator.

Meanwhile, Bartel and the NEW Water team plan to take the apprenticeship program to the next level. "We will start the process toward hiring another apprentice this summer, who will also be an incoming high school junior," says Bartel. "Then when Brandon finishes his apprenticeship, we'll hire someone to replace him. Our plan from now on is always to have two youth apprentices working here."

Thompson is part of a committee advising the state on developing a curriculum for a statewide youth apprenticeship, built around the Green Bay model. It has all the makings of a program that helps young people get a start in a rewarding profession, and helps clean-water agencies fill the pipeline with qualified operators.


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