5 Steps For Becoming a Utility Director

Moving through the ranks from operator to utility director can be a long process. Here’s how to shatter the glass ceiling and work toward your goal of upper management.

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At most utilities, the leadership hierarchy looks like this:

  • Shift supervisor/lead operator
  • Assistant chief operator
  • Chief operator
  • Plant manager/plant superintendent
  • Director of operations
  • Assistant utility director
  • Utility director

Although each city/county/township/parish has its own criteria for upper management, the requirements of a utility director are often impossible for an operator to obtain while working. Utility directors — and even assistant directors — typically need a college degree, at least five years of management experience and a professional engineering designation.

That ceiling might sound impossible to break through, but all is not lost. Here are five ways for an operator to challenge the status quo.

What is the glass ceiling?
Merriam-Webster describes a glass ceiling as “an unfair system or set of attitudes that prevent some people from getting the most powerful jobs.” Given this definition, the question is whether wastewater operators are unfairly prevented from becoming utility directors. To answer that, here's a look at the qualifications for operators vs. utility directors.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics describes water and wastewater treatment plant operators as follows:

In contrast, the job description for a utility directors might include the following:


How can a plant operator compete for a top-level management job that is tailor-made for a PE? Start by following these suggestions:

1. Education
Operators usually enter the wastewater field with a high school diploma and a good dose of life experience, which is not enough to compete for top-level management in the utility sector. However, in today’s world, you can find many credible and practical options for obtaining a degree while working full time — sometimes in as little as five to six years. Here’s an example of the coursework for a degree in public administration from an online university. 

  • General Education Courses (46 cr.)
  • Core Courses (35 cr.)
  • Concentration Courses (25 cr.)
  • Elective Courses (70 cr.)
  • Capstone (5 cr.)

For a master’s degree in public administration, which exceeds the educational requirements for most director positions, you'll need 36 additional credits.

In addition, employers sometimes offer education reimbursement. Be sure to check with your human resources department for more information.

2. Supervisory Experience
By advancing to chief operator or even a plant superintendent/manager, you will gain valuable management experience. This management experience is critical for upper level management where an individual is responsible for managing an organization’s resources effectively. You will have to work with a team of professionals while setting organizational goals. A chief operator gains this skill while managing a treatment plant’s process and staff.

Management and leadership skills can come from schooling or through daily experiences. A leader is seldom born with all skills in place, so by requiring a certain number of years in management, a utility minimizes rookie supervisor mistakes. Therefore, an operator should apply for every upward mobility position to acquire more supervisory experience. 

3. Volunteer for more positions
By taking on additional responsibility at a utility, you'll become more valuable to the organization. And by doing so, you’ll also gain insight into the big picture of running a utility. For instance, if you volunteer for a safety committee, you’ll understand the true cost of an accident. Each accident has a direct cost — such as equipment cost — and an indirect cost — such as the loss of earning power to the injured and their family. Because utilities are public entities, the cost of accidents is reflected in worker compensation claims. An operator who volunteers for a safety committee will participate in discussions that offer insight on reducing organizational losses, which is invaluable knowledge.

Operator associations are another good resource for operators seeking advancement. You might be on a training team with members of upper management from another township or parish. You will learn from their techniques and skills and gain insight into the position you hope to obtain.

4. Become a Professional Operator (PO)
In Fall 2014, a sledgehammer — the Professional Operator (PO) designation — became available for operators hoping to shatter the upper management glass ceiling. The certification is implemented through the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP) of the Association of Boards of Certification. C2EP developed a set of standardized exams to “reflect water environment industry best practices and meet international certification standards. With this designation and some education of its value, an operator can compete with the PE requirements of a utility director job description.

The PO program includes certificates and designations for wastewater collection, wastewater treatment, water distribution and water treatment. If you want to become an upper level manager, the PO designation will add to your education and work experience.

For more information on this designation, visit www.professionaloperator.org, or take a look at this video:


5. Make your case compelling
Finally, an operator must make a compelling case to a human resource manager or hiring team. All things are not equal for an operator and an engineer when the application and interview process begins. If you make it to the final interview stage, you must highlight your education, volunteering experiences and treatment experience.

Most utilities have an engineering department that can give recommendations on capital budget, forecasting and other technical project decisions. It’s up to you to expertly express the benefits of hiring a director who has come up through the ranks. 

About the author
Sheldon Primus is a Class A licensed wastewater operator with more than 18 years of industry experience. He is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist, authorized OSHA outreach instructor, and holds master’s degrees in public administration and environmental policies. He has held positions as a laboratory operator, chief operator, plant superintendent, safety and compliance officer, and industrial pretreatment coordinator.

Primus is CEO of Utility Compliance Inc. based in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which helps utilities in industrial pretreatment and risk management program compliance, water and wastewater CEU training, as well as occupational safety program development and OSHA outreach training for general industry and construction. He is also an online adjunct instructor for the Environmental Science Department at Florida Gateway College. He can be reached at sheldon@utilitycompliance.net or 888/398-0120.


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