Q&A: Kansas Municipal Utilities Talks About $3.2 Million Training Center

Kansas Municipal Utilities organization starts construction on a new training center to help groom new generations of operators.
Q&A: Kansas Municipal Utilities Talks About $3.2 Million Training Center
From left, Jim Jackson, Kansas Municipal Utilities director of technical services, and Colin Hansen, executive director.

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Training is always important in the water professions, but especially when the supply of qualified operators looks to be drying up.

Facing a wave of retirements among water and wastewater operators in its member communities, the Kansas Municipal Utilities organization has stepped up with a $3.2 million investment in a new training center in the City of McPherson.

The training center, expected to open in late 2016, will offer programs for water, wastewater, and electric and gas utility workers. It will include a 35-acre training field where workers can practice on actual power lines, natural gas lines, and water distribution and wastewater collections piping. A 19,500-square-foot building will house classrooms, a garage for demonstrations and hands-on practice, and KMU offices.

Colin Hansen, KMU executive director, and Jim Jackson, director of technical services, talked about the facility in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What generated the idea for this training center?

Hansen: We’ve seen a real need for municipal utilities in Kansas to have access to quality hands-on training for the next generation of front-line employees. I was lucky enough to have worked on a similar project for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities and was hoping to implement something similar in Kansas. We started with an association in KMU that was only two staff persons, including myself, so we had to spend the first decade building an organization that could provide the training programs and services we needed. In the past five years, we’ve become serious about building the training center. It became a big part of our strategic plan three years ago, and since then we’ve been going full-speed ahead.

TPO: Why was it important for KMU to undertake this project?

Hansen: Our members and our board realize that we have a tsunami coming in terms of the workforce. If you look at how old the average utility worker is and how many water and wastewater operators are eligible to retire right now or in the next five to 10 years, it’s clear there is going to be an issue.

TPO: What do the statistics say about the coming wave of retirements?

Hansen: On the electric side, a survey by the Kansas Energy Workforce Consortium said that 55 percent of distribution field supervisors were eligible to retire in less than five years, along with 54 percent of generation supervisors and 47 percent of generation dispatchers. A survey by the Water Research Foundation indicated that 20 percent of water utility employees could retire right now and another 10 percent would be eligible for early retirement right now. They also estimated that 37 percent of water utility workers and 31 percent of wastewater workers would retire in the next 10 years. It’s somewhat sobering.

TPO: What approach are Kansas utilities taking toward recruitment of new personnel?

Hansen: KMU represents mostly very small communities. Towns with populations of 1,000 or less would be about the median size of our members. We’re trying to find a way to take people who have roots in those communities and train them to be utility professionals. Recruiting into small towns in Kansas is challenging.
What exactly will the training center building contain?

Hansen: We envision dividing the footprint into three main components. The first is a 200-person auditorium that can be split up into three classrooms of 1,000 square feet each, plus a separate conference room. That will enable us to have up to four training sessions going on at any given time. The auditorium will back up to a working garage area where we’ll do hands-on training. It will have radiant heat, and we’ll be able to drop some power poles into the floor so we can bring younger line workers in and teach them how to climb poles and install cross-arms. The final third will contain the KMU offices. We currently lease space above a Main Street building in McPherson. The new offices will allow us to be much more productive.

TPO: What will the training field consist of?

Hansen: Right now it has some roughed-in gravel roads, about three city blocks, with electric poles and transformer boxes with undergrounds. On the electric side, we’ve done overhead distribution schools and underground schools. We received a grant from Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to train gas operators. We have a fair amount of gas pipe in the ground.

Jackson: On the water side, we have started installing waterlines and sewer lines in the field. As we grow, we’ll do classes about pigging, flushing and disinfecting. Eventually we’ll be able to go into metering. Another big area will be leak detection. On the wastewater side, we’ve talked about jetting, camera inspection, and installing sewer taps. We’ve talked to vendors about possibly donating a lift station. We’ll continue to grow into equipment safety, confined-space entry and trenching safety. Tying it all together is line locating and flagging. The indoor shop area will enable us to do motor and pump training.
TPO: Are there any long-term plans to add small-scale treatment facilities for training?

Hansen: That could be feasible, but it’s probably well down the road.

Jackson: Once we complete the building, our plan is to build a lab inside. A lot of the work we’re doing on the water and wastewater side is helping prepare operators for state certification.
Will the training center be open to more than just KMU members?

Hansen: Definitely. We’ve talked with just about every party who might have an interest in it, including the investor-owned utilities and the rural electric cooperatives. We’re building it knowing we have a dedicated audience in the municipal utility workers, but we expect to see many other folks coming to the campus and making good use of it.

TPO: How was the funding for the facilities put together?

Hansen: The center is being funded by three consecutive membership due increases of 12.5 percent. We’ve secured an industrial revenue bond through the City of McPherson, which has been an excellent partner. We’ll be looking to pay off the bonds over a 20-year stretch. Given that KMU is an organization with about $1.6 million in annual revenue, this has been a leap of faith for us, but our members are excited about it and continue to push us to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
TPO: How will the center charge for training?

Hansen: The training will be on a fee basis to cover the staffing costs and whatever training materials we might provide. We would have a modest surcharge for those not already contributing to the center through their dues as members or associate members. The big thing is to keep the cost low so we don’t scare away the smaller systems.

TPO: Who will be the instructors for the training classes?

Hansen: Right now we have a four-member job training and safety staff. Those folks will be tapped for much of the training. We’ll also reach out to Kansas Section AWWA, the Kansas Water Environment Association, the Rural Community Assistance Program, and the Environmental Finance Center at Wichita State University. We’ll also use our own members. It seems the best way to do training is to get young up-and-coming employees working side by side with grizzled veterans, talking about how to do things the right way and do them safely.

TPO: What have you done by way of partnerships with other industry groups in the state?

Jackson: The water and wastewater groups have all been very supportive. Several made it to our groundbreaking, and they look forward to partnering with us to teach best practices. Our associate members have stepped up and really helped with donations of supplies and materials for the training field.

Hansen: We’ve taken a ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality, and I’ll be darned if it hasn’t turned out that way.


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