There's Plenty of Career Life After Retirement From Operations

John Hart became an equipment sales engineer after retiring from operations. He sees many opportunities for retirees to stay active and engaged in the industry.

There's Plenty of Career Life After Retirement From Operations

John Hart made a transition from wastewater operations to wastewater equipment sales.

While waves of water and wastewater operators retire in the years ahead, demand for their skills will certainly not decline.

That means there’s ample opportunity for retiring plant operators, superintendents and managers — not to mention mechanics, collections people and lab personnel — to stay active and engaged in the industry, if they want to. One who has made that choice is John Hart, who retired in 2016 as deputy director of Saco (Maine) Water Resource Recovery Department.

Today, he’s a sales engineer with Russell Resources, a manufacturer representative firm based in Brewer. Through his work, he maintains relationships he built during a 45-year career in his native state and New England while sharing his experience and knowledge with plant personnel, giving back to the industry and continuing to learn.

Hart’s background is extremely diverse: municipal wastewater operations, industrial wastewater treatment, project management, contract operations, plant safety auditing, operator training and more. He has won a long list of the industry’s top honors, including the William D. Hatfield Award and Water Environment Federation Fellow induction. He also spent 32 years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves.

In an interview with Treatment Plant Operator, Hart talked about life after retirement from full-time work and the various ways in which operators can keep contributing to the profession long after their last official day on the job.

TPO: How did you come into the clean-water profession?

Hart: I fell into it by chance. I grew up just south of Portland. After high school I was thinking of going to college to be an industrial arts teacher, but I had an opportunity to visit a handful of wastewater treatment plants in southern Maine, and I got the bug, so to speak. I went to the Wastewater Training Institute for operators and from there went right to work at the Scarborough Sanitary District.

TPO: What led you to embark on such a diverse career in the industry?

Hart: I could have stayed at Scarborough for my whole career, as a friend of mine did who just recently retired, but I saw other opportunities. I was intrigued and inspired by new challenges.

TPO: Why did you decide to stay active in the industry after you retired?

Hart: I have a hard time saying no and a hard time slowing down. The water environment industry is a family, and I feel very connected to a lot of people in it. I wanted to continue in some way to add value and be of service. I like problem-solving. If you enjoy puzzles, you can go into a lot of wastewater treatment plants and find somebody who has an issue they’re trying to deal with. I believe in staying challenged, involved and paying forward. If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.

TPO: What exactly is your role with Russell Resources?

Hart: The company serves the six New England states. I cover New Hampshire and southern Maine. We represent a wide variety of equipment: disinfection, pumping, dewatering, aeration, controls, biosolids processing, chemical feed, odor control, headworks, filtration and more.

TPO: What does your work schedule look like?

Hart: My typical work week is Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On those days, I hit the road running. I keep in touch with engineering firms that are projecting various jobs. I also look for other projects that might hit the radar screen, such as construction projects where I feel we might be able to help. Every day is different. There are so many facets of the industry to discover. What I might plan as a drop-in, say hello and leave a card, often turns into a 30- to 60-minute conversation about challenges an operator has overcome or is facing.

TPO: How would you characterize the value you add for your clients?

Hart: By having 45 years of hands-on and supervisory experience in a variety of facilities, I’m able to share best practices and expertise from areas I’ve worked in, or refer operators to someone else who can help them. It’s nice to be able to inspire trust by coming in and talking the same language. If I’m taking a walk through a facility, I might be able to hand off ideas of what has worked at my previous facilities or other facilities that I know of. I’ll also give operators accolades for coming up with something I haven’t seen before and then put that in my tool bag for helping somebody else.

TPO: For operators who plan to retire, what other options exist for those who would like to remain connected to the profession?

Hart: I was approached by an engineering firm about being a clerk of the works, like a resident inspector, for construction. There are also opportunities to work for engineering firms that offer assistance with process control. Some of those firms do contract operations. I’ve seen a few folks who have been senior people at a facility stay on the books after retirement and work a couple of days a week or help with special projects. They use their expertise and experience to help a newer crew.

TPO: Do you see recent retirees as potential temporary resources for plants that are short staffed because of their own staff retirements?

Hart: That’s an excellent opportunity. I don’t know how often it actually takes place, but that can be a win-win for both sides, if somebody can do that without traveling great distances.

TPO: Do you see any opportunities for retirees on the regulatory side?

Hart: I don’t think regulatory work would be a fit as I’m not sure if too many state regulatory agencies would accommodate a part-time employee.

TPO: What about lending their hands-on expertise and perspectives to engineers designing plants or upgrades?

Hart: That’s something we could use more of: tying in grounded, deck-plate experience from the operational side with the expertise of somebody looking at things on paper. Designers could be missing opportunities if they don’t take advantage of that end-user experience.

TPO: What are the rewards of continuing to work after you officially retire?

Hart: I’m having a blast reconnecting with my extended network of water professionals who are working every day to protect the environment. Also, due to my extended regional territory, I have the extreme pleasure of meeting countless others who have the same can-do attitude of continuous improvement.

TPO: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the industry today?

Hart: During my visits, I hear the same universal message: We’re really short-handed. We’re down two operators. We’re down a mechanic. We just interviewed and we can’t get anybody. It’s an understatement to say we need help. The industry is crying for talented, passionate, interested professionals to fill the void as people like me move on. Fortunately, a number of facilities have made fantastic new hires who are doing outstanding work. I do my best to welcome them to the industry and encourage them to keep moving forward in their careers.

TPO: What do you love about the wastewater treatment profession?

Hart: What I love is seeing how far we have come since the early 1970, especially since the Clean Water Act of 1972, when I graduated from school. Until the late 1970s, there were no plants treating wastewater in the greater Portland area, and there was raw sewage in Portland Harbor. Now it’s been brought back to a high quality of pristine water, thanks to wastewater operators. That’s true across the state, the country and the globe. This is a can-do, feel-good industry where you can see what the results are when you’re done.

TPO: What advice would you give to clean-water professionals who are at or near retirement?

Hart: Don’t let all your experience and skills go to waste. Try to repurpose it as much as possible. In some manner, be engaged, and try to mentor someone — encourage a replacement. As you leave, you should try to solicit at least two new people to get into the field.

TPO: Do you ever see a time when you will step away completely?

Hart: When it’s not fun anymore or when someone else lets me know it’s not fun anymore, I’ll move on.


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