Wave of Retirements on the Way? Northern Maine Is Building a Solution

A Maine community college has launched an associate degree and certificate programs in water and wastewater treatment and technology.

Wave of Retirements on the Way? Northern Maine Is Building a Solution

Tim Crowley

A spiring water professionals in Maine now have a place to study for a variety of careers.

Northern Maine Community College has developed a Water Treatment Technology program that will offer a two-year associate degree, as well as one-year certificates.

Northern Maine Community College will be the only college in Maine to offer an associate degree in water treatment technology. The aim is to fulfill a need for qualified people to operate water and wastewater treatment facilities as experienced operators retire.  

The programs, which began in the fall 2018 term, were created in response to a request by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and in association with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The associate degree will cover state-of-the-art technologies in water and wastewater treatment. The one-year certificate programs in water or wastewater technology will prepare students for state-approved operator testing for immediate employment. The program also offers online training modules to help existing operators advance their licensure levels.

The program instructor is John Belyea, P.E., who has worked in engineering consulting since 1998. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Central Florida and is a licensed professional engineer in Florida, New York and Maine. He talked about the program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator, along with Tim Crowley, college president, and Nick Archer, Northern Maine DEP regional director.

TPO: What led to the creation of this Water Treatment Technology program?

Archer: The senior management team at DEP had discussed in detail our concerns that the workforce in Maine was facing the “gray tsunami” and what we could do about it. Two years ago, I met with Tim and noted that Maine had no centralized certification or degree program where we could bring new people on board and prepare them for the industry’s ever-increasing demands in technology and regulatory requirements.

TPO: What was involved in getting this program started?

Crowley: We had to present a proposal to the Maine Community College System Board of Trustees to get the program approved. John worked with a very active advisory committee of industry professionals that helped us determine what needed to be taught and looked at the licensing required for people to work in this industry. The board approved our request last spring, and since then, we’ve been ordering equipment and building the curriculum.

Belyea: A person who has been instrumental in developing the program on the curriculum and laboratory level is Robert Rak of Bristol Community College in Massachusetts. He is on the advisory committee.

TPO: Where did the funding for the program come from?

Crowley: Initial funding came from a longtime supporter of the college who made a $1.5 million contribution for startup costs and later added $150,000 for future expansion to the southern reaches of the state. The college foundation committed to provide $300,000, and the DEP provided support services worth $50,000.

TPO: What is the program’s basic structure?

Belyea: It has water, wastewater and laboratory components. For the lab component, I’m designing water treatment and wastewater treatment pilot systems. I’ve reached out into the industry to see what equipment operators at small and larger plants are using because we want to gear the training to what students will see when they get out into the field. We’ll be teaching a couple of levels of technology, including hand-held probes used to test surface water and multiparameter probes used in the lab. We’ll teach both the water and wastewater process sides: biological and chemical treatment, filtration and disinfection.

TPO: Beyond the core requirements, what courses will the associate degree include?

Belyea: We have mirror programs for water and wastewater. Both sides will take an introduction to water treatment technology. Then we have Water Treatment 1, Water Treatment 2, water plant operations, and their counterparts on the wastewater side. Those cover the meat of all the various processes they’re going to see. We finish with a treatment plant safety course for all the students. We’ll also provide some basic electronics training so they understand simple circuits and get insight into SCADA.

TPO: Does this program include hands-on or in-the-field training as well?

Belyea: We’ll be doing trips to treatment plants so the students get a real understanding of how the equipment works. They’ll go into the field and see these professional operators solve real-world problems with pumps and the systems, so they walk away with more than just classroom instruction.

TPO: What careers can students access with the associate degree?

Belyea: We feel the associate degree is a powerful tool. It will allow graduates to go into water or wastewater, or into sales in the industry. They’ll have a good understanding of chemistry if they want to work in a laboratory.

Crowley: The associate degree will also allow students to look toward advancing to a four-year degree. For example, those inclined to think about engineering or to move on to a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine or another school would have that option.

TPO: What is the nature of the one-year certificate offerings?

Belyea: Those are two-semester programs that will enable students to take their water or wastewater certification testing. They’ll be able to take their Level 1 and Level 2 testing as soon as they complete the certificates. If they pass the Level 2 exam, DHHS will grant some “time served” for the education so that within six months after passing, they can qualify as Level 2 operators, instead of having to wait a full year.

TPO: What’s the function of the training modules for operators already in the field?

Belyea: Working with the DEP, we’ve gained approval of 62 topics, each one hour long. They consist of 45 minutes of classroom lecture with a lot of problem-solving, followed by a short test. For a reasonable fee, operators can get one training credit hour per module. We have a small number of mathematical modules approved by DHHS, and we hope to modify many of the 62 to the water side. By year’s end, we could see as many as 50 of each. 

TPO: What is the real value of these training modules?

Archer: They will enable operators to receive training to maintain their certification or move up the certification ladder without having to travel excessively. That is an issue here in northern Maine, especially for the small plants with limited staff.  

TPO: Will these modules be accessible to operators throughout the state?

Crowley: Yes, and we hope to offer them across state lines so that anyone in New England can access them. We believe the New England Water Environment Association will help us to accomplish that.

TPO: Is there a possibility of offering the other program components more broadly also?

Crowley: We would like to work with other community colleges so that Northern Maine Community College becomes the central deliverer of the program in the state but people at other campuses can have access to it. Our first effort in that direction is at York County Community College. We’re working with them to upgrade their lab so some of the instruction can be delivered there, along with the use of technology to deliver live instruction coming from here. We see that happening in January. The vision is that we will deliver the program statewide and to people in the rest of New England who need training.

TPO: What are you doing to promote this offering to prospective students?

Crowley: We have created brochures and advertising. We’re attending industry conferences to get the information out. Our admissions people who visit high schools statewide are taking this information with them, in particular to the technology centers where the kids receive technical training. We’re sending information to military veterans and to the operators already in the plants.

TPO: What has been the response to this program from the professional community?

Belyea: We’ve had a really positive response on all the aspects. I’ve been to half a dozen conferences, and everywhere I go, I’m approached by supervisory and lead operators saying, “Next year I need five people, I need three. When do they start graduating?” The need is immediate, and the demand is there. We have no doubt that young people who go through this program can really succeed and have good long-term careers. 


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