The New Generation of Operators Will Need a Variety of Key Skills and Attitudes

The first Mercury astronauts displayed exceptional qualities. What traits define the most proficient and effective water professionals?

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Many of you remember author Tom Wolfe’s book and the movie titled The Right Stuff.  The story chronicles the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the selection process that they went through to be chosen by NASA.

As we all know, our industry is faced with a significant number of openings in the not-too-distant future as operators retire and move on to their next chapters. How will those hiring their replacement define the qualities that will give them “the right stuff?”


Probably the biggest change new operator trainees will face is the need to use technology. Communication and electronic capabilities have progressed to the point where plant operations can be monitored and controlled using smartphones. Today’s new operators have grown up with this technology and will be ready to use it when making any number of operational control changes.

New plant personnel will need a basic familiarity with electronics such as tablets, smartphones and laptop computers to be able to interpret and store the data collected and then apply it to operating scenarios. This applies to inventory management, maintenance, laboratory analysis, the generation of reports and more. SCADA systems using telemetry and instrumentation are now routine, so knowledge of these systems will be beneficial, as well.

Education and training

The right candidates must be able to fulfill all of their prospective employers’ physical and educational requirements. Entry-level positions usually require a high school diploma or GED, but some employers may prefer a higher level of education. For those who wish to be promoted, a college degree will help. Those who choose not to pursue a four-year degree can pursue vocational and technical degrees that apply directly to water and wastewater treatment.

In addition, new hires should obtain the level of licensure needed to operate their facilities. License requirements may vary from state to state. New operators will also need long-term on-the-job training. In-house mentoring can ensure that trainees receive adequate instruction in performing all their duties. Practical experience or formal training in plumbing, electricity or mechanics will certainly be a plus.

Many facilities also now require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) needed to transport biosolids and other materials and supplies. For tank trucks, an additional endorsement is necessary.

Attention to detail

Many of an operator’s day-to-day duties involve repetition, whether in the laboratory, in performing maintenance duties, or preparing reports. Therefore, new candidates must be detail-oriented and able to accurately and legibly record information on plant performance.

New personnel should also understand the visual appearance of their plant processes and what the processes sound and smell like. Keen observation and monitoring can help them minimize or avoid problems. Such thoroughness can help in addressing little problems before they become big problems.


Regular and predictable attendance and punctuality are critical. Anyone can be late on any given day for any number of reasons — that’s life. But habitual tardiness and absence without good cause is a bad habit. It is disrespectful to co-workers who have to pick up the slack, and to the organization that pays the person’s salary.

The new crop of operators must be willing to work nights, weekends, holidays and to be on-call as needed. Because this is a sometimes-daunting schedule, adequate time off must be built into the schedule whenever possible.

Direction and decision-making

Operator trainees must be open to taking direction from seasoned personnel who are in a position to instruct and offer knowledge and guidance. Much like being on a movie set, a new trainee must be able to take direction, apply it and then carry out an assignment capably.

Because operators often work alone or with limited supervision, sound decision-making skill is a must. A trainee will have to be able to make critical operational decisions, sometimes without the benefit of all needed information, and err on the side of caution when possible. They must also understand and adhere to OSHA safety standards and follow established standard operating procedures.


The preservation of public health and safety and the environment is a sacred public trust and the paramount duty of every clean-water operator. Operators must conduct their duties in a manner that is beyond reproach. No system wants to be the lead story on the six o’clock news because someone failed or tried to cut corners. Expectations about the required responsibilities must be laid out clearly during the initial interview.

Advertising and recruitment

Many of today’s positions are advertised on job sites or sites like Indeed or LinkedIn, and job openings can obviously be promoted through email and text notifications. With many people maintaining multiple social media account profiles, a great deal of information about a potential candidate can be found out by searching on Facebook or other sites.

A quick view of an applicant’s profile may provide answers to questions that legally cannot be asked during an interview. Still, the tried-and-true method of word-of-mouth remains a good way to attract high-quality applicants.

A good fit

A new operator coming into an established setting will take a little bit of time getting used to.  Finding the right stuff also means finding the right fit. It is not a good idea to hire a “warm body” just to fill a position. No amount of forcing can fit a square peg into a round hole; having the wrong person in the wrong role can be worse than having no one at all.

The old saying that “Attitude makes the difference” is certainly true. The aforementioned qualities are far from a complete profile of a qualified candidate, but they provide a good roadmap to finding the people who make the best match for your facility.   


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