Instead of Retiring, This Former Operator is Mentoring Young Professionals

William Grander devotes many hours in his post-employment years to advancing the industry and helping operators hone their skills.
Instead of Retiring, This Former Operator is Mentoring Young Professionals
William Grandner, a former wastewater treatment plant superintendent for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, is now a mentor to operators around the state and region.

When William Grandner took a temporary position at a New York City wastewater treatment plant in 1979, he wasn’t sure he would like the job.

As it turned out, he loved the profession so much that he remained active even after retiring three years ago. “For 32 years, I’ve been involved with the New York Water Environment Association on various committees, which I enjoy very much,” he says. “So, after I retired from the Owl’s Head Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2014, I knew I wanted to continue mentoring operators.”

Today, he serves on three state committees and a task force, and on two metropolitan chapter committees. Although this sounds like a lot, it averages about two to three days a month. “I like the interaction with young people. I was one of them once, and I know what the future is.”

He especially enjoys teaching: “The most recent class I taught was for a stationary engineer electric (shift supervisor) civil service exam preparatory course. It involved two classes a week for eight weeks. More than 75 percent of the class passed the exam. That was very rewarding.”

Grandner provides an example of how clean-water operators can keep contributing to the profession long after they leave full-time employment.

Like father, like son

Grandner followed his dad’s footsteps into the clean-water profession. “I had been working as an electrician in the construction business in the 1970s, but it was slow, and I found it hard to stay working,” he says. “My dad was an operator at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York City from 1966 to 1986. He was my mentor. After his retirement, I was assigned to that plant as a deputy plant superintendent.”  

Another mentor was John Ruggiero, former plant superintendent for the city’s Red Hook Wastewater Treatment Plant. “He was my supervisor when I worked at that plant, and is still a friend today,” Grandner says. “He got me involved in the NYWEA, and we both serve on the Conference Management Committee.”

Grandner started his career at the 120 mgd Owl’s Head plant as a temporary worker. “My training was all in-house with professional instructors,” he recalls. “New York State requires that you work in the industry first and then get certified.” He eventually earned his Grade 4A (highest) operator’s license through the state Department of Environmental Protection. After a series of promotions took him to the Red Hook and the Newtown Creek plants, he returned to Owl’s Head in 2002 as superintendent.

Seeking incentives

Grandner was responsible for operations, maintenance and supervision of 100 employees. “My greatest challenge was motivating my employees,” he says. “As civil servants, there is no reward system, so you can’t give anyone a raise or promotion. It’s not like in private industry.”

He found a motivational tool in the annual NYWEA Operations Challenge. Since 1988, he has served on the NYWEA Operators Committee, which oversees local training and the Operations Challenge. At the NYWEA spring conference, operators from all of the city’s 14 treatment plants take part in the six skills events. The top two teams go to the state competition, and the winners there go to the national competition at WEFTEC.

Says Grandner, “It’s motivational because the operators get to travel and interact with different operators from all over the state.”

Another challenge Grandner faced as superintendent was dealing with multiple construction projects. “There are no new plants in the city,” he says. “You rebuild what is in operation, which means big construction equipment on site and a lot of people walking around. I have a passion for using resources such as methane gas harnessed through the wastewater process. I was very involved in a project that used methane to produce electricity for operating the wastewater treatment equipment. I see green infrastructure as a way to save the planet.”

Making it better

Grandner has been recognized for excellence. He won the NYWEA Uhl T. Mann Award in 2004 for plants greater than 50 mgd. In 2012, he became the first operator inducted into the NYWEA Hall of Fame, now with 61 members.

Although he enjoyed the recognition, his greatest satisfaction was in making things better: “My immediate supervisor was off site, so I was the highest-ranking employee at the facility, which meant that I could improve things.”

Public education was a big part of the job. He dealt with the neighborhoods, giving updates on the plant and responding to complaints. “It’s nice to tell your neighbors ahead of time if something is going down,” he says. “I would meet with the community boards and tell them, for example, that there could be odors during the day. My feeling was, give them the answer before the question comes, because otherwise you get phone calls.”

A good balance

For Grandner, being retired means staying active. “I knew when I retired that I didn’t want to just stay home,” he says. “Plus, I had been on various NYWEA committees, and knew I could continue with that.” Today, he divides his time among:

  • The Conference Management Committee. During the annual three-day conference, he helps with overall operation, vendor setup, technical programs, functions and registration.
  • Wastewater Facilities Committee. This committee focuses on training and certification, and conducts the Operations Challenge. Grandner is involved in setup, coordination and, if necessary, judging.
  • Member Education Committee. Grandner works with committee members to develop training curriculum and locate teachers and training sites to make low-cost recertification available to operators.
  • Operator of the Future Task Force. As co-chair, Grandner works with members to research operator recruitment and retention.

Grandner also volunteers on two metropolitan New York City chapter committees. The Operators Committee handles local operator training and conducts the city’s Operations Challenge. The Programs Committee plans and conducts chapter activities.

Grandner also enjoys teaching classes for municipal exams for operators seeking promotions. “These are sponsored by their union and come up every three to five years,” he says. “I make up the syllabus, and we review past exams. During the discussion, I give them advice on how to take a multiple choice civil service exam.”

Volunteering can take significant time. “The Operations Challenge is a week in New York or another city and a week at the annual conference,” Grandner says. “This year, the national competition is in Chicago, and I’ll be there five or six days. It’s a good balance. It doesn’t monopolize my time, but I feel like I accomplish something. It’s rewarding to be an operator’s mentor. If we show them the way, they will make their own path.”

When he’s not volunteering, Grandner enjoys traveling with Marie, his wife of 44 years, and spending time with his two grandchildren: “They are my hobby.” His hopes for the future? To see wastewater technology brought to the classrooms. “Teach children the importance of clean water, and they will teach their parents. Show them at a young age the rewards derived from working on the front line.”

Having a plan

Even before William Grandner retired as plant superintendent at the Owl’s Head Wastewater Treatment Plant, he had a plan. For years, he volunteered on various New York Water Environment Association committees, and he saw that as a way to keep active once he left his full-time job.

He encourages other clean-water professionals thinking about retirement to have a goal.  “You’ve been busy 40 hours a week your whole life, and there can be a real fear in stopping that,” he says. “You know you will need to fill up your day, and not just with busy time.”

Grandner suggests finding an organization, like the Water Environment Federation, that needs help: “There are programs where people who have worked in the industry can mentor young people. They have a wide reach. In New York, there are seven chapters in urban and rural areas. So wherever you live, there is an organization near you.”

He suggests picking something familiar. “It doesn’t have to be mentoring operators, but can be any job in the industry,” he says. “And you only need to do a few hours a month. But, you stay active. Young people today don’t have the mentors I had. Baby boomers are retiring, sometimes in groups of five or six at a time, leaving a terrible void.”


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