A Cold Call to a College Launched an Initiative to Recruit and Prepare Young People for Water Careers

A North Texas water utility addresses the retirement wave and operator shortage with an award-winning training program.

A Cold Call to a College Launched an Initiative to Recruit and Prepare Young People for Water Careers

Interns take part in an onboarding process. From left, Steve Rummel, training and development manager; interns Erik Mendez, Tiffany Savage, Kevin Hogan and April Xu; and Michael Helms, training and development supervisor. 

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With explosive population growth in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, early retirements and people moving up or taking other jobs, North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) knew they needed to do something to address its operator shortfall.

“We were seeing a large swath of retirements with more looming, and we knew we needed to start training the next generation of workers,” says Michael Helms, wastewater treatment and development supervisor.

Steve Rummel, training director, made a cold call to Collin College, asking to partner in creating a course to help solve the problem. The college had been expanding its campuses, and its service area was similar to the utility’s. The college jumped at the chance.

The district is a regional wholesale provider of water, wastewater and solid waste services for 1.8 million residents across 10 counties in North Texas, a territory of 2,200 square miles.

Program hatched

Collin College and utility staffs together created a plan for the coursework, and the Waterworks training program for water and wastewater operators was launched. The college received a state grant that covered all course costs, including internships. After that, the college promoted the program by posting flyers and sign-up sheets around its campus.

Participants must be U.S. citizens, be at least 18 years old, and pass a criminal background check, all requirements for a Texas Class D water license. The program for wastewater operators started in March 2020 with 21 students enrolled.

Students came from various backgrounds; their ages ranged from 18 to 65. Some were looking for career changes, including one woman who came from China and had taught Chinese in a local school for 15 years. Another applicant had lived in Vietnam for 10 years playing rugby. The water side started in February 2021 with 33 students, of whom 21 completed the program.

Working overtime

While the college provided the resources, the district worked with college staff to create the coursework and provided its own operators as the instructors, teaching the courses at night while continuing their full-time jobs. “This was a real commitment from our operators,” says Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at NTMWD.

Skylar Holley, trainer and lead water operator, observes, “Both programs require an internship where students work under a trained mentor from the utility.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the utility had to convert to online coursework. “Again, our staff and operators stepped up to the plate to keep the program going,” Helms says.

Students in the wastewater program complete four classes in two weeks: basic wastewater, wastewater treatment, collection, and activated sludge, along with a five-week internship. Nine completed the program; the district hired three of them, and one took a position at another utility. The five-week water program requires three classes: basic water and surface water production I and II, along with the internship. As of March, 21 students had completed that program.

Recognized for excellence

Because there was no charge for the classes, some students went only far enough to earn their Class D water licenses and dropped out before the internship started, intending to use the license in some other role.

The Waterworks program won a National Association of Clean Water Agencies award for Innovative Workforce Training Programs. Helms says, “The end goal is to continue the program, continue to fill slots for much-needed operators and train the next generation of workers.”   


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