In Need of a New Generation of Operators, a Midwest Agency Looks to Young People

The Great Lakes Water Authority’s award-winning apprenticeship programs are helping to fill the pipeline with well-qualified team members.

In Need of a New Generation of Operators, a Midwest Agency Looks to Young People

LaRico Andres (left) and Bilal Bell-Muhammad graduated from the electrical instrumentation control technician apprenticeship program in April 2020.

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The Great Lakes Water Authority’s three apprenticeship programs in Michigan are helping to resist the wave of retirements sweeping the industry.

The initiative started in 2017 with the electrical instrumentation control technicians-instrumentation (EICT-I) apprenticeship; 20 apprentices are now enrolled. A program for maintenance technicians launched in 2018, and an electrical instrumentation control technician-electrical (EICT-E) apprenticeship began this year.

All apprentices work one-on-one with a journey worker for the duration of their course study and on-the-job training. The apprentices’ ages range from 19 to 61; 59% are under age 36, and 21% are women.

The authority’s efforts have earned a National Environmental Achievement Award for workforce development from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.


The authority provides water and wastewater services to some 4 million people across 112 member communities in eight southeast Michigan counties. One-fourth of those residents live in Detroit and the rest in the suburbs.

Terri Tabor Conerway, chief organizational development officer, says the apprenticeships were developed in response to workers leaving for retirements and other reasons. In recruiting their replacements, authority leaders found that applicants lacked the right training and skills they needed. Therefore, in 2017, they decided to cultivate their own workforce.

The authority works on the apprenticeships with several community partners. Focus: HOPE, a Detroit-based nonprofit, provides education and training to help underprivileged people in the area prepare for good-paying jobs. Candidates must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or equivalent, have a driver’s license and pass a drug test.

Focus: HOPE advertises the apprenticeships, processes applications and decides how many candidates to accept in the preapprenticeship part of the program, which lasts 11 weeks. Acceptance requires successful completion of a general math and English assessment. After they complete the preapprenticeship program, they can be considered for an apprenticeship; if accepted, they start earning a salary. 


Once hired, the EICT-I and maintenance technician apprentices take classes at night with the authority’s education partner, Henry Ford College, while working a 40-hour week training at an authority facility. The authority pays the tuition and book fees.

The Michigan Department of Labor was deeply involved in creating and administering the program to ensure compliance with rules and regulations related to on-the-job training, safety and education hours. The third partner is the union that represents the apprentices based on their classification.

“Great Lakes Water Authority is the sponsor of the programs, but our partners are sitting right there with us, helping us to shape the program and determining what it is going to look like,” Tabor Conerway says. “We follow the Department of Labor standards.”


Apprenticeship candidates have a choice of various programs. The EICT-I program had 20 apprentices as of last March. All candidates in the three-year program graduated in April 2020.

The maintenance technician apprenticeship is a program that lasts three years and 10 months and had seven enrollees as of March. The new EICT-E apprenticeship lasts five years. Twenty candidates are enrolled. For programs that require certifications or licenses, apprentices receive training and the authority covers the costs. Through tuition reimbursement, the authority encourages apprentices to complete associate degrees.

Tabor Conerway notes that the authority has to compete to retain its well-trained workers because the car manufacturers and other utilities offer higher salaries: “What we found is that if we groom and train them well, they’ll give us at least three to five years of dedicated service.” 


One major takeaway for authority leadership is the importance of pulling all the partners together when kicking off a program. Tabor Conerway observes, “When you have all the apprentices, journey workers, our leadership team, the Department of Labor and union representatives in the same room, everyone hears the same information. It’s very impactful to the apprentices to realize the part everyone is playing to help them succeed.”  


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