A New England Association Looks to Bring Veterans Into the Water Professions

A New England Association Looks to Bring Veterans Into the Water Professions

Pete Goodwin (left) and Dustin Price

Military veterans transitioning to civilian life need rewarding careers. The water industry needs bright people with technical aptitude, a commitment to teamwork and a service ethic.

If you think that’s a match made in heaven, so does Dustin Price. By day, he’s maintenance manager for the Portland (Maine) Water District. In his spare time, he chairs the New England Water Environment Association’s ad hoc Veterans Workforce Development Committee.

In that role, Price has helped lead what has come to be called the Water Warriors Jobs Initiative, an effort by the New England Water Environment Association and its affiliated state organizations to recruit and retain returning and retiring veterans to well-compensated, satisfying careers in the drinking water and clean-water professions.

It’s a timely endeavor, in that veterans are constantly in need of career paths while the water sector faces a wave of retirements among experienced operators. To further its goal, the initiative aims to provide veterans with education and training, streamline the certification process for them, and provide placement assistance and apprenticeships.

The ad hoc committee was formed in June 2017. Before then, Price, a U.S. Navy veteran, worked extensively with Pete Goodwin to lay a foundation, doing research on existing programs that might help their cause and pleading their case to members of Congress. Goodwin, a former consulting engineer, is client services manager with the Ted Berry Co. and a past state director for the Maine Water Environment Association. The two talked about the Water Warriors Jobs Initiative in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is your military background?

Price: I was a nuclear machinist mate in the Navy, operating a nuclear propulsion plant on a submarine.

Goodwin: I don’t have a military background, but my father is a retired World War II Marine, and my grandfather was a World War I Army veteran.

TPO: How did you make the transition from military life into a clean-water career?

Price: When I left the military as a young guy, the water and wastewater industry was out of sight and out of mind. I didn’t know how to leverage the skills I’d learned, so I became underemployed, doing shift work in security. One day at my apartment, my landlord was outside working on his tractor. I helped him fix it and explained my skills from the Navy. It turned out he was the collections foreman for the York (Maine) Sewer District, and they were looking for a mechanic. That was 16 years ago, and I’ve been in the water industry ever since.

TPO: How did you make the decision to embark on a water career?

Price: My landlord invited me to tour the plant. I told him no at first. Like many people, I pictured turds rolling by and I didn’t want anything to do with that. But I went for the tour and I noticed that the plant didn’t smell bad. Everything was fairly clean. I saw the equipment and said, “I know how to operate all of this. I can do this job.” It was a very happy accident that my landlord’s tractor broke. But my slogan is: “No more accidents.” People shouldn’t have to find the water industry by accident.

TPO: What does the workforce look like in New England in terms of operators aging?

Price: On a graph showing the ages of wastewater operators in Maine and New Hampshire, you can clearly see a bubble between 51 and 60. We don’t have a lot of people before or after that bubble. In New Hampshire, 55 percent of the operators are over the age of 50.

TPO: How would you assess the population of veterans in the region?

Goodwin: As an example, in Maine we found there are about 120,000 veterans. About half of them are students, retired, disabled. The other half are in the workforce, but many are underemployed. While the number of underemployed is relatively small, it should be zero. These are people who aren’t making use of the skills they have been trained to have.

TPO: So the two of you are the drivers behind the Water Warriors Jobs Initiative?

Price: We were at first, but it has picked up significantly. We have 35 volunteers right now on our committee, and we have subcommittees for every New England state.

TPO: What makes the water and wastewater sector such a good fit for veterans?

Goodwin: People leaving the military are well-trained, and they tend to have many of the skill sets that anybody working in a wastewater or water facility must possess.

Price: My military training related directly to what I do now. It’s the same pumps, the same kinds of equipment. As a nuclear machinist mate, I learned physics, chemistry, math, computer skills, engineering, fluid flow, and thermodynamics. The training was equivalent to 77 semester hours of college credit. People come out of the military with knowledge of safety data sheets, bloodborne pathogens, and first aid. Safety is constantly trained in the military and is very much a part of the culture, just as it is in the water sector. 

TPO: What about the softer skills needed by someone working in a water or wastewater treatment facility?

Price: There is a certain mentality about emergency response that you see in military folks. They get excited about that. They don’t want cubicle jobs. You can get a water main break at 2 in the morning. Anytime at my plant I can have a machine malfunction that threatens the environment. I need people who are ready to pivot from their day-to-day job to an emergency response. Military folks are trained to make that pivot and get the mission done.

TPO: How have you structured your job initiative for veterans?

Goodwin: It’s based on what we call four tent poles: training, certification, internships and apprenticeships, and job placement and recruiting.

TPO: What is your initiative planning to do to meet veterans’ need for training?

Price: The military has a Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, where veterans coming out can experience different careers. We should be at those transition centers, advertising the careers we have. Right now, the New England Water Environment Association has a 12-week, one-day-a-week operator training program. It’s a very rigorous Wastewater 101. We would like to condense that into a two-week program and teach it at the TAP centers twice a year. Participants would be able to get their license after taking that class.

Goodwin: We would like to see those classes approved for support under the GI Bill. If we offer the class at the TAP centers, have a single instructor teach it, and have a defined curriculum, then we can get the operator training school GI Bill-qualified.

TPO: On the certification front, how can your committee smooth the path toward the licenses that veterans need to become operators?

Price: As we looked to convince states to increase and standardize their education credit for military experience, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection took the initiative and began changing their rules to allow for up to 2 years of education experience for military service. Other states are reviewing their rules now, and we expect at least two more New England states to adopt the Massachusetts model fairly shortly. Most licenses have a time requirement before operators can move up, so this model will allow veterans to advance two years faster than before. That’s a big benefit.

TPO: What progress are you making in establishing apprenticeships?

Price: The Maine Department of Labor and the National Rural Water Association have a wastewater apprenticeship program in place. It includes 4,000 hours of on-the-job training in a structured format along with integrated online training. I’m planning to refine and pilot test that program here in Portland.

TPO: What are the key advantages of these apprenticeships for veterans?

Price: The biggest boon is that it’s GI Bill-approved. Apprentice veterans can qualify for a monthly stipend of up to $2,000 for the first two years they are in on-the-job training. When you look at what our industry typically pays for entry-level positions, that’s a tough sell for folks coming out of the military. They’re not going to come in at $15 to $16 an hour. But if you take that initial pay rate plus $24,000 a year, along with the two years of structured training they get, plus two years of education credit toward certification, they could leave the apprenticeship with a higher license and better compensation than they would have otherwise.

TPO: Apart from the internships, what can be done to place qualified people in water and wastewater positions?  

Goodwin: We have tended to post our job openings mostly to each other — on association or state websites and maybe in our local newspapers. We need to get our job postings out more broadly. In Maine, the Department of Labor has given us some resources to help spread the net a little further. We’re considering some radio spots. We’ve also talked about how to rework our ads to appeal to a veteran audience.

TPO: What kind of messages do you see appealing to military veterans?

Price: The service ethic resonates with a lot of veterans. This is a job where we make the world a better place a million gallons at a time. We don’t just make widgets or ring a register. We protect the public health. Many veterans want to continue to serve in their own backyards, and there’s a water and wastewater facility in basically every town. It’s a great way to serve their community with great pay and great benefits. This is a career. When we bring people into our industry, we generally see them retiring after 30 or 40 years. They love what they do. And we know that military veterans love the same things about this career that we talk about.

TPO: What are your proudest achievements to date under this initiative?

Goodwin: The first was taking the concept and focusing it down to four manageable tent poles.

Price: The second is the number of volunteers who have come out from an array of disciplines. We have folks from regulatory, training commissions, operators, chief operators, superintendents and others. It resonates far and wide.

TPO: Where would you like this initiative to be about two years from now?

Price: We would like to have the apprenticeship program set up with state sponsoring organizations and operating throughout New England.  

Goodwin: We would love to see the TAP education program in place, advocating and training veterans coming into the workforce. We would also like to see this initiative spread farther than New England. We have lofty goals and a lot of work to do, but with a crew of 35 working right now, we think we can do it.

If you would like to support the Water Warriors Jobs Initiative, you can contact the designated liaison for your state:

  • Connecticut: Chris Lund, clund@groton-ct.gov
  • Maine: Pete Goodwin, peter.goodwin@tedberrycompany.com
  • Massachusetts: Jeremiah Murphy, jmpatrick27@yahoo.com
  • New Hampshire: Dustin Price, dustin.price77@gmail.com
  • Rhode Island: Janine Burke-Wells, janine.burke-wells@warwickri.com
  • Vermont: Bob Fischer, bfischer@sburl.com


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