Here's a New Initiative Aimed at Building a New Generation of Water Professionals

A nationwide apprenticeship program for prospective water and wastewater treatment operators has potential to ease the impact of impending retirements

The National Rural Water Association has established an apprenticeship program for the water and wastewater operation profession.

The roots of the program go back to 2011, after the nationwide economic downturn. At that time, I was assigned to sit in on a Technical Advisory Committee at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia. The college’s Office of Workforce Development was in the initial stages of instituting a water and wastewater training program and wanted help in developing the curriculum and course requirements.

The objective was to train displaced workers and others who needed to upgrade their skills, and then offer them apprenticeships of several weeks at a water or wastewater treatment plant where they could receive on-the-job training. Those who completed the program were not guaranteed a job but had a distinct advantage when openings became available.

The program ran for a few years with moderate success until it was discontinued as the focus of the college shifted into other areas. Fast-forward to today: What was once a somewhat isolated idea has grown into a flourishing nationwide National Rural Water Association apprenticeship program.

Fulfilling a need

Much has been written about the coming shortage of operators. Various sources indicate that within the next 10 years, the water industry will lose up to 50% of its workforce to retirement: Half the women and men who now operate water and wastewater treatment facilities will be gone.

That is a sobering statistic for any profession, let alone one tasked with protecting public health and safety, environmental quality and infrastructure integrity. There is a risk that enormous amounts of institutional knowledge will be lost. In addition, replacing the retired operators will be time consuming and expensive for many systems.

The National Rural Water Association apprenticeship program will help utilities fill critical positions and prepare for retirements on the horizon. It aims to ensure that competent, qualified people will have access to the training and licensing needed, thus helping to stave off a shortage of water and wastewater operators.

Widely adopted

The program, developed according to standards recommended by the U.S. Department of Labor, is made available through state Rural Water Associations. At present, according to the National Rural Water Association website, the following 17 states have approved the program: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Thirteen other states are at various stages of the approval process.

The program is administered through sponsors who take responsibility for all aspects of the curriculum. Sponsors include the state’s Rural Water Association or the water/wastewater system in whose name the apprenticeship is registered or approved. The National Rural Water Association oversees quality and consistency through an apprenticeship program manager and may assist local sponsors as needed.

The qualifications for admission are similar to those for general employment in the water and wastewater field. Applicants must:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Be physically able to perform the essential duties of their positions
  • Pass a drug screening upon acceptance
  • Submit to a background check per federal guidelines for public water systems employees
  • Have a valid driver’s license.

Some sponsors may have additional requirements. Once accepted, applicants enter a written agreement with the sponsor that spells out the terms and conditions of the apprenticeship and the expectations and requirements for successful completion.

Advantages of apprenticeship

Apprentices can expect a defined pathway to careers in water and wastewater operations. Their wages are likely to increase as they acquire new skills. For high school students interested in vocational/technical careers, an apprenticeship can be an alternative to a time-consuming and costly college degree.

Meanwhile, utilities can expect well-trained people who can be productive right from the start. Sponsors can train apprentices on specific equipment relevant to their treatment processes while following their established standard operating procedures. The program also presents opportunities for employee advancement and retention, the filling of vacancies and the passing of crucial institutional knowledge along to new workers.

All apprentices work under the supervision of their system sponsors. The supervisor makes work assignments, provides on-the-job instruction and ensures a safe work environment. Apprentices typically work the same hours as full-time operators. They can receive work credit for previous relevant experience.

Flexible offering

The typical apprenticeship takes two years to complete. The combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction prepares the apprentices to be fully qualified in multiple aspects of water and wastewater operations while preparing them for the various levels of licensing examinations.

Some sponsors offer full-ride and half-ride scholarships to help applicants with the cost of in-class training, conference attendance, licensing exam fees, and manuals and study guides. The program provides a degree of flexibility to meet the needs and goals of sponsors and apprentices alike.

More information about the apprenticeships is available on the National Rural Water Association website (www.nrwa.orgNational Rural Water Association||Apprentice||Aging Workforce) and from state Rural Water Associations.

About the author

James Didawick ( is superintendent of Public Works for the Town of Woodstock, Virginia. 


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