What’s In A Name? Or A Title?

What’s the potential benefit of calling people who work on water systems something other than “operator”? Can that help elevate the industry?

In the same week recently I heard from two professionals — one each from the wastewater and drinking water sides — about the merits of calling treatment plants something else, and giving people who work in them different titles.

From Sam Wade, deputy CEO of the National Rural Water Association: “The NRWA and state Rural Water Associations ... have launched the campaign to refer to the staff who operate water and wastewater systems as water or wastewater system operations specialists.” 

From Jack Saltes, P.E., wastewater operations engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Water Quality: “The Water Environment Federation now refers to all wastewater treatment plants as water resource recovery facilities [WRRFs]. Suggestions have been made that the DNR also change the title ‘wastewater treatment plant operator’ to ‘water resource recovery specialist.’”

In both cases the thought is that these designations better reflect what water facilities do and the skills, knowledge and expertise plant staff members have. “Simply put,” says Wade, “these positions are not just task-oriented jobs. They are professional career tracks that deserve to be recognized as such.”

In Concept, Yes

I am inclined to agree. On the wastewater side, I have advocated for the terms “clean-water plant” and “clean-water operator,” on the grounds the plants and people should be known for the wonderful end product they produce, not for the unpleasant raw material that comes in.

Water plants and their personnel seem less affected by any of the “yuck factor” associated with wastewater (or, more crudely, sewage). Still, an argument can be made for a name change. In Wade’s words: “Today, operation of water and wastewater systems is much more complex, has legal liabilities and requires a variety of professional skills, knowledge and experience, including certifications of varying degrees.

“Still, for the most part, it is a service taken for granted and viewed by the public more as a job rather than a professional skilled career track. A recent survey of over 1,850 system personnel of all-size systems and positions asked: Which title — specialist, operator or technician — projects the skills, knowledge and expertise in the industry today?

“Seventy-two percent selected technician or specialist over the title of operator. When this type of response comes from within our own industry it is a clear indication that it is time for change.”

Change Isn’t New

Wade notes that changes in job titles aren’t new: customer service representatives replaced clerks and phone operators; administrative assistants replaced secretaries. He also observes that the Water Environment Federation used to be the Water Pollution Control Federation, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies was known as the Association of Metropolitan Sewage Agencies.

To Wade, changing the way we refer to water professionals will help attract new blood to an industry that is about to lose up to 65 percent of the workforce to retirement. “The largest loss will be in our nation’s rural and small communities, which compose 92 percent of the community water supplies in the nation,” he says.

He believes “specialist” titles that better reflect the professional nature of the careers will lead the public and government officials to view the people more favorably, leading to higher pay structures that will help attract more and better talent.

What’s The Impact?

Will changing the names of plants and the titles of professionals by itself change public perceptions of the industry? Not likely — but the names and titles we use now force the industry to swim upstream, especially on the wastewater side.

In any case, it’s a discussion worth having. WSO is deeply interested in your thoughts. Please express your opinion by sending a note to editor@wsomag.com. I promise to respond, and we will publish a sampling of comments in a future issue.


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