Evanston Looks to Apprenticeships to Help Withstand the Coming Wave of Retirements

An Illinois city struggled to find qualified water treatment plant team members. An apprenticeship program has had a major impact.

Evanston Looks to Apprenticeships to Help Withstand the Coming Wave of Retirements

Pictured are three current apprentices in Evanston, Illinois, and the seven apprentices who have found full-time positions with the city. Front, from left, Dante Henley, Curtis Evans, Pablo Sarinana, Joe Wilks, Adan Carrillo and Mark McIntosh; back row, Miguel Garduno, Eric Liddell and Kevin Villigas, the current apprentices; and Bryan Evans.

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The Illinois city of Evanston developed an apprentice program in 2009 to train applicants for its water treatment facility because it was difficult to find qualified workers.

“We were having a challenge finding people who were knowledgeable in water main and sewer main repair and had experience working in a water treatment facility,” says David Stoneback, Public Works director. “We also noticed that applicants did not have the education and training in the skills they needed for these positions.”

The apprentice program has been successful: 60% of those completing the program are now employed by Evanston or neighboring cities, most of them in Evanston.

Learn and earn

The Evanston Water Treatment Plant on the shore of Lake Michigan can supply up to 108 mgd of drinking water. The service area includes Evanston and five other communities near Chicago, with a combined population 365,000. The water distribution system includes 157 miles of water main.

Applicants for the Water Worker I apprentice program must have a high school degree or GED and be at least 18 years old. They also must have a good driving record, obtain a commercial driver’s license and be residents of Evanston.

The city employs a prescreening process using Kenexa Prove It software that tests the applicants on math, logical reasoning and communication skills. If they pass, they go through an interview process and must take a physical test that includes practical tasks such as opening valves, carrying cinder blocks and shoveling stones.

Once they complete those requirements, they train in four areas, rotating between distribution, sewers, pumping and filtration. They work in each area for six months for a total apprenticeship period of two years. During that time, they work alongside crews while supervisors monitor and review their performance. Hourly pay is $11 for Level 1, $13 for Level 2 and $15 for Level 3.

Upon completing the program, apprentices may apply for openings at the water treatment plant. Most apply for water worker I, II and III jobs and for Public Works maintenance worker I and II. The majority are hired at the water worker I level.

Train to retain

Evanston has a residency requirement for apprentices for two reasons. “First, our priority is to keep our residents, and therefore our tax base, employed in good jobs,” Stoneback says. “Second, it gives us the luxury of training our workers in a qualified, proper way on the equipment and processes at our facility.”

Newly minted apprentices are not guaranteed a job in Evanston, and they are free to apply for positions in other communities. Some have gone on to work in neighboring cities but have returned when an opening at the Evanston water plant became available. 

“We also require our apprentices to obtain their CDL for use in the distribution and sewer areas,” Stoneback says. “That also makes them more desirable and hirable when they are pursuing positions outside the city. It’s a leg up for them. The more advantages and skills they have, the more it will ensure that they secure a job at our water plant or in a neighboring community.”

Success stories

The apprentice program is promoted through the city website and public outreach. City workers go to group meetings, churches and high schools to spread the word. A city advocate employee gets the word out to a variety of organizations.

“One star apprentice, Mark McIntosh, who already was a seasoned worker in the construction industry, went through the program,” Stoneback says. “Due to his construction experience, he caught on fast and completed the program, performing great work. Upon completion, he was hired as a water worker III. After only five years, he became a crew leader, just one step away from supervisor.” 

Based on the program’s success, the city has created a new apprentice program, Water Plant Operator, that takes just 12 months to complete. Additionally, the Public Works department has established an apprentice program that mirrors the Water Worker I two-year program.


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