New Education Program Aims to Jumpstart Wastewater Careers Out of High School

As the pool of qualified treatment plant operators continues to shrink, one municipality in central Florida is working on a solution by offering high schoolers a head start into a lucrative wastewater career

New Education Program Aims to Jumpstart Wastewater Careers Out of High School

Students study wastewater treatment at the Altamonte Springs Science Incubator.

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Recruitment shortage has been a bogeyman of the industry for several years, and one municipality in central Florida is taking steps to address it.

A new program undertaken by Altamonte Springs will take high school students through wastewater operator training. Not only that, but by the end of the class, Altamonte Springs hopes to have the high school seniors pass the Class C state exam.

“Our utilities in central Florida are struggling, we see that’s an issue, and we know nationally that’s an issue,” says Ed Torres, director of Public Works and Utilities. “Not all kids are going to college, and we have really robust careers as operators and environmental technicians. So we tried to develop a curriculum that would generate some interest in being a plant operator, produce at least some licensed operators, and to see if we can address this a little bit differently from some other attempts that have been made in the past by others.” 

A new approach

Bringing wastewater treatment to high-school students isn’t necessarily a new concept of itself, but two elements set the Altamonte Springs program — dubbed Project Water Technology, or H2O Tx — apart from typical collaborations between utilities and schools.

Firstly, the students will be on site, learning with the equipment right in front of them instead of a purely classroom approach. Secondly, the students are evaluated to ensure that they are really interested in the path as a potential career option.

“They have some programs like this in other schools, but the success rate has been marginal because the interest level varies in the kids,” Torres says. “With some of these other programs, they were teaching a class in a classroom to somebody that has potentially never been exposed to a treatment plant. It’s difficult to visualize and understand, reading about something but you have never been in that environment.”

Classes are two days per week, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It’s 66 class periods over an entire school year. They will follow the University of Sacramento volumes I and II operation books.

“We’re going to do one hour of formal instruction, and one hour of hand-on experience,” Torres says. “So if we talked about the clarifiers in one session, then that second hour of class, they’re going to actually see the clarifiers, and see how they operate.”

The instructor will be a 30-year industry veteran, not a high-school teacher who simply learned enough to pass the state exam.

“The teacher situation — you have a school teacher, who may have a background in biology, and is proficient in what they do enough to take a test and pass it, but they don’t have 30 years of experience,”  Torres says. “We chose to have a dual-licensed operator who retired from Altamonte Springs teach the class, as opposed to having a school teacher try to learn being an operator.”

Screening for success

One might be inclined to cast as wide a net as possible when approaching recruitment. But Altamonte has realized that it is likely to get more genuine interest by ensuring the participants have a strong likelihood of success before embarking in H2O Tx.

“This is a pilot program with one school that is close to our regional water reclamation facility,” Torres says. “We worked with the school board, they screened the kids and made sure they were interested in this particular class.”

That’s not to say they don’t send their message out to the broader student populace — the program began with an existing relationship between the local high school and Altamonte Springs Public Works and Utilities.

“We have something called the Altamonte Science Incubator, where we teach kids from middle and high school about STEM careers,” Torres says. “We take them to our wastewater plant and our lab, and we teach them a lot of different environmental issues.”

That initiative has exposed 3,500 kids per year to the municipality’s regional water reclamation plant over the last five to six years. From that effort, the H20 Tx class was a natural extension.

After putting out feelers through that softer program, the utility then offered the Project H20 Tx class to prospective students. After a student expresses interest, they go through two informational presentations by treatment plant employees. Even after that, the student’s parents go through a pair or presentations as well, so that everyone knows what the students are committing to.

“Altamonte’s spring staff went there and made presentations to the kids, to make sure that they understood what the career path was, what the positions offer, what the salaries were,” Torres says. “There are advancement opportunities for these kids too, because once they get the first license, they can get the next license, and the next license, at their own pace. Their salaries can increase, and that’s without a college degree. Many didn’t know that.”

A minimum GPA of 2.25 is required as well. The first inaugural class of Project H2O began last week.

“We want these kids to be successful,” Torres says. “I think some of the other programs that we’ve seen, it was a class that was offered, and the kids would sign up without really knowing what it entailed.”

Broader impact

If the class is successful, Altamonte Springs hopes to expand into a water treatment class in addition to continuing the wastewater treatment class. Torres hopes that they may also act as a catalyst for the industry to embrace more innovative methods in recruiting new operators.

“The immediate goal is to be producing more professionals in our area, but really this is applicable to anywhere. The kids could go to any state for that matter,” Torres says. “If you think about it as an employer, somebody that has taken the state test already, has some experience — I’d hire that person as an operator trainee anytime over somebody that hasn’t even taken the test.”

Students who take the class will hopefully emerge having passed the Sacramento operational training test and the Florida state exam with a 132-hour jumpstart on their licensure experience hours.

“We’re really excited about this program,” Torres says. “We think that it brings a really great opportunity for the young adults that are coming out of the program, and it’s going to fill an incredible gap that we have in the industry.”


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