Try It. Buy It.

Maybe it’s time for the water profession to embrace more fully a recruiting and training technique that has worked well for numerous other industries.

When interviewing water system operators for stories for this magazine, I usually ask, “How did you get involved in this profession?” Surprisingly often, the answer is some variation on, “I needed a job.”

Sure, many people choose the water business out of pure interest, or out of a passion to do good for the environment and community. But others — some of whom “grow up” to be outstanding operators and leaders — come into the profession almost by chance. They get a job, they take an interest, they stay. And they make it a career.

And maybe right there is a partial answer to the challenge the industry faces in recruiting new people to replace the many veterans planning to retire in the coming years. In a couple of words: internships and apprenticeships.

Magnet for the young

Internships are common in just about every industry. They’re offered to high school, technical college or university students as part of their preparation for careers. Certainly some water utilities offer them. Consider the story in this issue of WSO about an excellent internship program for college students in Denton, Texas.

Why are internships especially valuable for the water professions? Because young people don’t gravitate toward water careers the way they do toward electronics, computer programming, engineering, banking, graphic design or journalism. Amid all the “glamour” fields, the water business isn’t on the radar. So, why not let more young folks try it out?

Traditional recruitment tools — talking to guidance counselors, exhibiting at job fairs, conducting tours — are fine as far as they go, but they rarely go far enough. How about offering internships, real hands-on work for a summer, to kids who simply “need a job”?

These days especially, many students, high school or college, do need jobs. A water system that advertised for summer internships would almost surely get a flood of inquiries. So you take in the applications. You screen for those who seem suited for a profession that involves science, math, and mechanical and technical aptitude. And you choose the best candidates. You end up not just showing young people a career or telling them about it. You let them experience it long enough to take genuine interest.

Stepping it up

If you want to up the ante, how about, instead of or in addition to internships, actual apprenticeships? There’s a lot of talk in the industry about the need to elevate the stature of water professionals, such as by calling them “technicians” or “specialists” instead of operators. What raises stature more than a program that treats the career seriously, in the same manner as plumbing, electrical, carpentry and other skilled trades?

My own state (Wisconsin) is among those that offer apprenticeships, in this case for wastewater treatment operators. These three-year paid apprenticeships consist of 90 percent on-the-job training and 10 percent classroom instruction. Apprentices learn directly under the supervision of experienced operators. Program organizers believe it creates a high-quality pipeline for future professionals.

Internships and apprenticeships can be great for experienced staff as well as the young people they help train. It can only be satisfying for a longtime operator to teach a young person about the career he or she loves. Playing the role of mentor also helps operators reaffirm their convictions about the profession. And the enthusiasm of a young, curious person has a way of rubbing off on someone older.

Time to act?

At least one water agency leader, Bruce Bartel, treatment manager for NEW Water in Green Bay, Wis., sees apprenticeships as part of the answer to a growing shortage of operators. “People in the field aren’t getting any younger,” he says. “It’s time for people in our profession to step up. I keep hearing that we need to get young people involved in wastewater treatment. I think this is a great way to do it.”

Through internships and apprenticeships, the water industry could create, collectively, thousands of part-time and full-time jobs for energetic young people looking for work and a career direction. From where I sit, these programs look like an excellent way to bring high-quality people into the water business.


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