Career Path Program Could Fill the Operator Retirement Gap

A training program at Prince William County’s Water Reclamation Facility lets students and career-changers in on the ground floor of the profession.
Career Path Program Could Fill the Operator Retirement Gap
Doug Chapman, liquids support specialist, checks dissolved oxygen readings in the H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility aeration basins.

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Baby boomers are retiring from the clean-water industry in record numbers, and there is strong competition in the trades for the kinds of workers needed to replace outgoing operators.

In response, the Prince William County (Virginia) Sanitation Authority launched an initiative to attract and retain workers for its operator and mechanical maintenance positions. The Career Path program was started in 2011 with help from a sister utility, the Upper Occoquan Sanitation Authority. PWCSA then honed the program and tailored it to its own needs.

Trainees are hired for plant operator and mechanical maintenance positions and begin a structured five-step process that can lead directly to careers. Trainees receive plant-specific training and take outside study classes, such as short schools in preparation for Virginia wastewater operator licenses. As they progress, they take on increasing responsibility and receive pay increases.

Trouble with turnover

PWCSA, serving a population of 275,000, has a 150-square-mile service area and employs 60 people who support its water reclamation facility. The H.L. Mooney Advanced Water Reclamation Facility, built in 1981, has an $8 million annual operations budget, an average flow of 14 mgd, and a 24 mgd design capacity.

Theresa O’Quinn, human resources director, notes that a high rate of retirement is by no means limited to Prince William County: “It is a trend in the wastewater industry all over the United States. It is getting harder and harder to replace the experience and skills of retirees, especially when it comes to the trades. About half of the turnover at our plant is due to retirements, and we don’t see this trend changing anytime soon.”

One staff member, Mike Failor, WRF operator 1, who is preparing to retire after more than 30 years with the authority, is working with plant staff to make improvements and suggestions to the training program with the aim of making it better suited to the needs of the future.

“The original program was put in place to help the authority retain the knowledge of our experienced operations staff before their retirements,” says Failor. “It has been modified from its original conception to one of operator education, training and development.”

The career path program looks for applicants with mechanical experience and aptitude who don’t mind working irregular shifts. It attracts people who might not have considered wastewater treatment but who see appeal in on-the-job training and opportunity for advancement in a stable industry with well-paid jobs that can’t be sent overseas. Many applicants stay and launch careers.

Getting started

After applicants are interviewed and pass a series of aptitude tests, they start as trainees and must obtain a Class 4 operator’s license within two years. After that, their destiny is up to them. If they choose, they can progress on their own timetable to Class 3, 2 or 1 licensing. Along the way, they must meet proficiency standards. Each time they fully complete a given step in the career path, they earn a promotion to a higher pay level. The promotions are noncompetitive — other workers do not have to retire or leave to create vacancies for trainees to move up.

The career path program is promoted during employee recruitment, during employee onboarding, and throughout the year by the trainees’ supervisors and managers. Trainees can monitor their progress against program requirements online.

The program is open to various backgrounds, including high school and college graduates and people with manual labor or office and administrative work histories. The average age of employees who have advanced in the career path is 46 and their average length of service with the sanitation authority is six years. At present, there are five trainees in the program, all of whom came from outside PWCSA.

After trainees are hired, they work with the shifts for one to two months to learn all aspects of the job. After that, they are placed on a regular rotating shift. Training is standardized so that the expectations are the same for everyone. All have to pass a checklist of critical knowledge items. For instance, in the lab area, trainees need to know what samples must be collected and how to run various tests.

Step by step

The career path program entails five steps:

Step 1. Starting trainees have 24 months to complete the Wastewater Class 4 license and a set of skill level tests. Once those are completed, they are promoted to Operator Class 4. This portion of the career path is mandatory and a condition of employment.

Step 2. Upon attaining Operator Class 4, trainees can voluntarily take an additional skill level test and get a Wastewater Class 3 license. After a one-year waiting period, they can receive a promotion to an Operator Class 3.

Step 3. Upon attaining Operator Class 3, they can take an additional skill level test and obtain a Wastewater Class 2 License. After a two-year waiting period they can be promoted to Operator Class 2.

Step 4. An Operator Class 2 who possesses a Class 1 license and has passed two skill level tests is eligible for an in-grade promotion while waiting to complete the program’s final step.

Step 5. An Operator Class 2 takes the last skill level test to receive a Wastewater Class 1 License. After a three-year waiting period, the person can be promoted to Operator Class 1.

Tracking progress

Trainees collaborate with others during shift changes and discuss different ways of doing things and lessons learned. They also shadow lead operators to learn the different areas of the plant. The program constantly evolves, and training materials are routinely updated.

Trainees like the straight line the program creates for advancement. They meet monthly with their supervisors to chart their progress. The authority pays the training costs for employees who want to take offsite training at the local community college or other locations, helping them get their state licenses and move up through the program faster.

“We were having a challenge attracting operators who were already certified,” says Rachel Carlson, water reclamation operations manager, who oversees the program and the trainees.

“This program has solved that problem and simultaneously enabled us to attract a whole new pool of operators. It is a win-win.”


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