The Benefit of Year-Round Operator Training Programs

Continuous training gives Union Sanitary District team members the knowledge and experience to stay at the top of their field.
The Benefit of Year-Round Operator Training Programs
Tim Hughes opens a suction valve to a pump inside the Alvarado pump station

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For more than two decades, the Union Sanitary District has been winning regional and national awards for its management and operational excellence. Paul Eldredge, general manager, attributes that partly to a diligent and extensive year-round wastewater operator training program.

Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, the district is challenged by droughts, stiff environmental regulations and a growing population. Its annual budget includes funding for training, which is required for each job.

“When you make the investment, you see the return,” says Eldredge. “By giving our people the best training to develop their skills and perform their jobs at peak levels, our customers receive the highest level of service.”

The district, serving a population of 350,000, receives nearly 100 industrial discharges in addition to residential wastewater customers. The relatively high industrial flow presents challenges in daily operations.

Training demands

The district runs its 33 mgd (design) wastewater treatment plant with 16 operators, one operations trainer, and two coaches (supervisors), all under the guidance of Armando Lopez, work group manager and former operator.

The comprehensive training includes monthly sessions consisting of 12 rotating modules that cover the entire wastewater process. The sessions include scripted components, where operators receive information and then must demonstrate technical knowledge of the processes. They are also required to perform actual job functions in hands-on and scenario-based competency testing.

“Through the training, all operators and staff understand the entire process in running the wastewater plant,” says Eldredge. “We don’t throw anyone into the deep end of the pool and expect them to swim.”

Some employees are considered subject matter experts (SMEs) for a specific process area, such as chemical dosing and electrical. The training modules have built-in flexibility, enabling tenured employees to lead sessions in their areas of expertise.   

Inclusive training

The district works diligently with each employee and SME to ensure the training program’s continued success. Careful monitoring and employee feedback, including suggestions for process improvement, are critical. Detailed records maintained throughout the process serve as a foundation for continual improvement.

Dave Drake, a senior operator who has been with the district for more than 30 years, exemplifies how training benefits team members. Drake delivers most training modules and serves as the lead field trainer for operators. He also monitors and tracks all training for the wastewater team, reporting what each member has completed and needs to accomplish.

“Dave assumes a great deal of responsibility, especially in overseeing the training regimen for new operators,” says Eldredge. Part of Drake’s role is to log the results of the competency training, as well as any additional instruction team members receive outside of the structured coursework.

“With Dave’s oversight, we keep working with our operators to make sure they get it,” Eldredge says. “We want our employees to succeed, and I honestly can’t think of an instance where that hasn’t happened.”

Training with others

Training goes beyond in-house sessions and fieldwork. The district encourages operators to attend training at other facilities and venues. That includes seeking higher levels of operator certification through the State Water Resources Control Board. Staff members also take part in training and educational offers by the California Water Environment Association and the Water Environment Federation.

The district also works with local and regional agencies to boost education, recognition and recruiting. For example, Union Sanitary is a signatory agency in BAYWORK, a collaboration of 28 water and wastewater utilities working to ensure workforce reliability.

Last year, the Union treatment plant hosted a BAYWORK event that offered cross-training to field operators. “Each event is different, and we participate where it makes the most sense for us,” Eldredge says. “Sometimes it’s field trips at plants, and other times it’s training.”

BAYWORK provides opportunities for internships to students at junior colleges that encourage and support the training program. “We need to attract and retain a highly qualified workforce,” says Eldredge. “When our staff participates in events like these, we not only help make our employees more rounded, but also appeal to a new generation.”

Team members also impart their knowledge to district residents during open houses for the community.

Best practices

Not all training focuses on day-to-day operations. Periodically, staff members visit industrial and other private sector locations to see how processes, procedures and safety programs work in different environments. “It’s helpful for our operators to learn new processes while interacting with other professionals,” says Eldredge. “We can always expand our learning and can never rest on our laurels.”

Eldredge and the district board continue to support training because they understand the return on investment: “Through all our work, training and education, we contribute to the region and offer our customers the highest level of service.”


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