Heading Back to College: Maine Institutions Step Up to Train a New Generation of Operators

Maine community colleges collaborate to offer a water treatment technology certificate and associate degree and program to students throughout the state.

Heading Back to College: Maine Institutions Step Up to Train a New Generation of Operators

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The need for new operators to replace those retiring has not abated. Drinking water and wastewater utilities nationwide are constantly on the lookout for qualified professionals, whether fresh out of school or changing careers.

The community colleges in Maine are helping to meet the need in their state by offering a water treatment technology certificate and associate degree program. Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle launched the program in 2018 at the request of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2020-21, Southern Maine Community College began partnering with NMCC to deliver training on its South Portland campus. State-of-the-art technology enables students to attend lectures from anywhere, but laboratory exercises directed by a faculty member are held on site. 

The program aims to provide students with a fundamental knowledge of the scientific principles used to treat drinking water and wastewater. They learn industry theory and gain hands-on experience to better understand the information across the spectrum, from the basics to in-depth study.

Graduates can qualify as technicians in water and wastewater treatment plants and also have opportunities for roles in laboratory analysis, chemical processing, and sales in companies that support the water industry. Patrick Wiley, assistant professor of wastewater technology program at SMCC, talked about the offerings in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What was the impetus for this training program?

Wiley: It’s a similar story nationwide. There were too few people entering the field here, while many people were leaving for retirement. We wanted to fill that gap with training programs. We serve people with no previous background who take part as full-time students. We also provide remote education for people already on the job.

How did the program get started?

Wiley: Northern Maine Community College started it in 2018. We weren’t getting a lot of enrollment, and so we expanded the program to the Southern Maine campus. There was private seed money to help us get started. The two colleges run the program collaboratively. Both campuses are equipped with multiple cameras and tools for remote learning. The original intent was to reach a broader spectrum of people who might be working and couldn’t necessarily come to campus for instruction. But it turned out to be convenient during COVID, as we were able to offer some course content even when things were mostly shut down.

In what ways are the courses offered?

Wiley: We have a unique mix of people, and our delivery methods are also unique. We try to be as flexible as we can. We offer in-person instruction, and remote instruction over Zoom. We also provide asynchronous remote instruction where we record the lecture content and put it on a learning platform called BrightSpace, where students can access the course resources, do their homework and take their exams. We have a couple of remote learners in a lab class. For them we do the lectures remote. Then they can come in one day a month and we’ll do four labs in a row, so they can complete them all in one day.

How were water and wastewater utilities dealing with the operator shortage?

Wiley: Before joining the college I was the operations manager in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The reservoir of operators was getting smaller as people were leaving. We had built a large new biological aerated filter. We ended up hiring people with reasonably compatible skills, or people who we thought could pick it up quickly, and training them on the fly. That’s what a lot of facilities in this area were doing. In our program, we have some students who got into the industry that way. They take our classes and get up to speed while they’re working. We’ve also have students who came directly out of high school.

What is your educational background?

Wiley: There was a wastewater program at Southern Maine that I took in 1997 to become a wastewater operator. I started working in the field and then went back to school. I got my bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Maine and my master’s in natural resources from Humboldt State University in northern California. I completed my doctorate at the University of California Merced, where I worked on an algae biofuel project funded by NASA.

What experience did you have in the profession before becoming an instructor?

Wiley: While on the West Coast I ran a membrane treatment plant. Before that I worked for a few years in Saco, Maine. After earning my degrees I worked for the city of Portsmouth. In the past four years I’ve been a technical consultant writing manuals for the Sacramento State University wastewater program. Those are the books we use in our program, along with the Fundamentals of Wastewater Treatment books from the Water Environment Federation.

How do you recruit students for the water treatment technology program?

Wiley: That’s an area where we need to up the game a little bit. The Maine DEP includes information about the program in their newsletter. We held an event at the campus last summer where people from adult education programs and people working in the field explained the benefits of entering the industry. One high school student who came to that event took a tour, and he enrolled in the program. Last summer we did more work reaching out to targeted groups through social media. This is the first time the two community colleges have collaborated in this way, so we’re still working out the logistics.

What is the difference between the certificates and the associate degree?

Wiley: There are one-year certificates in wastewater treatment and water treatment. You have to choose which one you want to attain. If you choose the associate degree, you take one year of wastewater and one year of water, and a couple of electives.

At what point in your program are people qualified to take a state licensing exam?

Wiley: After the first year, or even a little sooner, depending on the classes they’re taking. We offer a very general introductory course in water treatment technology that’s an overview of the whole field. If someone is just taking that, I probably wouldn’t encourage them to take the exam. But those taking the introductory treatment classes would likely be successful.

Which method of course delivery seems to be the most popular?

Wiley: It’s evenly split. Two students joined right out of high school, and they come in for class because they’re full-time students. One student last year was full-time but got a job at a nearby treatment plant. He has continued toward his associate degree and takes classes via Zoom. Another student works for a water distribution utility and wants to get an associate degree. He’s asynchronous but comes in for the labs.

Are there plant tours as part of your courses?

Wiley: We do a lot of tours. In the first year we were only able to do a couple because of COVID. Last year we went to seven or eight facilities.

How well are you doing in terms of placing students in jobs?

Wiley: We’re doing very well. I get emails constantly from nearby facilities looking for people. The opportunities are there for people who want to take them.

Where do you see your program heading in the next few years?

Wiley: A first priority is to get our numbers up. We’d like to see 15 to 20 people in the program. How we get there hasn’t been decided. We need to find a way to attract people with applicable skills, like pipefitters, electricians and other tradespeople. We’ve had some communication with outreach groups to veterans, because that’s a potentially huge pool of wastewater operators. We hired people out of the military when I was at Portsmouth, and they were all fantastic. They were able to slot right in.

Do you see expanding the breadth of instruction?

Wiley: Yes. The biology department here has reached out to me. They have a lot of overlap with things we’re doing. There are a lot of fish hatcheries in Maine, and one of the issues there is recycling the water and removing ammonia. Students in biology classes go to treatment plants on field trips. There’s opportunity for us to collaborate with marine sciences, biology, aquaculture — providing the core knowledge and giving people options to branch out.

What tools do you have for students to gain hands-on experience?

Wiley: We mix textbook and presentations with hands-on activity as much as possible. We have a motor control center trainer where students can build circuits; wire starters, switches and lights; and run a VFD. We can simulate faults so they have to do troubleshooting to find out why something isn’t working. We have water and wastewater treatment trainers that the students built. We also have a centrifugal pump that students can pull apart and take the seals and impellers out. They can practice for rebuilding motors and pumps.

What about actual laboratory equipment?

Wiley: We have drying ovens, a microscope, an analytical balance, water baths, an autoclave, a spectrophotometer — all the basic items you would find in a treatment plant lab. We do lab exercises and then make the work apply to actual operations.

What would you say about the water field to encourage young people to consider it?

Wiley: This profession is unique because it involves a huge collection of different trades and disciplines. There’s a biology aspect. There’s a lot of chemistry. There’s mechanical, electrical and controls. You can’t run out of things to do and to learn. If you like puzzles and collecting data and making things work as a system, it’s the ideal field. I don’t think there are many industries where you get to do so many different things. Here in Maine, most of the facilities are relatively small, and you’re almost required to be versatile.  


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