A Kentucky City Partners With a Community College on an Operator Apprenticeship Program

A Kentucky city partners with a community college on an apprenticeship program to train potential replacements for water and wastewater workers planning to retire.

The Kentucky city of Prestonsburg is partnering with Big Sandy Community & Technical College to create an apprenticeship program that will help fast-track students to become water and wastewater treatment plant operators.

The program is designed to address the aging of the operator workforce for these positions and to help prepare young people for other roles in the wastewater and water departments that will need to be filled after retirements.

The city’s water and wastewater treatment plants serve 210 square miles at the northern end of Floyd County in eastern Kentucky. This includes a base of 3,500 residential and commercial customers. The 52-year-old wastewater treatment plant has an average flow of 0.75 mgd and is fed by 100 miles of collection lines and 60 pump stations.

Skewing older

“The workforce is currently skewed very much toward the retirement end, and we need to get an influx of younger workers to get them trained now to step in to fill these roles,” says Turner Campbell, superintendent and CEO of the Prestonsburg City’s Utilities Commission. 

Utility staff members meet quarterly with other water and wastewater service providers in the region. At a recent meeting, a worker nearing retirement said the aging workforce needs to be addressed in the next three to five years to avoid a shortage of workers.

Prestonsburg Mayor Les Stapleton noted during the meeting that he works closely with Big Sandy and offered to help the college develop a program to address the issue. In assembling the program, utility leaders informed the college staff about the state guidelines and requirements that need to be followed for water and wastewater treatment plant training and for obtaining the proper licenses.

Donald Compton, manager of treatment with the commission, collaborated with the college during the formation of the apprenticeship program and will oversee it when it starts in fall at the two plants. Meanwhile, college staff members studied operator programs at other state colleges as they formulated their program.

Work and learn

Kelli Chaney, dean of career education and workforce development at Big Sandy, says the first cohort of the program will involve 10 plant employees who have industry experience but have not received the certifications and licenses they need to advance in the field.

The apprenticeship program will help them become licensed and certified in three years, as opposed to the five years it normally took before. When the program has been operating for about six months, it will open to members of the public with or without industry experience.

Under a work-and-learn model, the students will go to college two days a week for academic courses such as math and chemistry and then work at the utility three days a week, working one-on-one with licensed wastewater treatment operators. Students will be paid during their apprenticeships.

Once they receive proper safety training at the utility, they will start learning all aspects of treatment plant operation. Shadowing a licensed operator, they will be trained in light maintenance of pumps and motors, biosolids dewatering, chemical feed adjustments, creating taps for new water customers, and other tasks.

Helping the community

Apprenticeships will be prepared for roles not just at the wastewater and water treatment plants but also in the wastewater collections and water distribution systems so that they can potentially replace workers planning to retire in the coming years.

Another issue the program helps resolve is the unemployment created by the downturn in Kentucky’s coal mining industry. “These water and wastewater treatment plant operator positions are good paying jobs and enable our citizens to stay in their community while at the same time working in a thriving industry,” Campbell says.

“Coal workers have a unique skill set in that they have experience working on equipment. That makes it easy for them to adapt to our equipment. In addition, they have a good aptitude and work ethic, both traits that are transferrable and highly valuable in our industry.”

Looking to the future

While creating the program, college staff members learned that municipalities throughout the state are dealing with worker shortages due to retirements. The college hopes to launch the apprenticeship program statewide in the next couple of years. “Our program is unique,” Chaney says. “No other community college in the state that we know of has a program like this, and our college never had such a program until now.”

Dr. Sherry Zylka, president of Big Sandy, observes, “We’re looking forward to this partnership because community colleges are exquisitely poised to meet local needs such as this. We are always looking for ways to partner with local businesses and government entities to help our community prosper. We look forward to developing a best practices program that other people will come to us for, to help enrich their communities.”


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