This Kentucky Operator Is a Pioneer for Women in Water Treatment

Pamela Rose of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, retires after serving 24 years as a water treatment plant operator

Pamela Rose
Pamela Rose

When Pamela Rose wanted to join the Elizabethtown (Kentucky) Water Treatment Plant more than two decades ago, she was asked to pass a test that other operators were not.

Most supervisors wouldn’t ask a man to prove that he could lift a 50-pound bag, yet Rose had to demonstrate on two separate occasions that she could perform the manual labor associated with the job.

Fortunately for Elizabethtown, Rose didn’t let that faze her.

“I just looked at him before I did it, and said, ‘You’re talking to an old farm girl.’ I threw that bag on my shoulders and walked off. But he still wanted me to prove myself,” Rose says.

Rose had been working at a department store prior to the treatment plant opening, and was wearing her department store work clothes at the interview.

“I didn’t have proper shoes on to do it, but I had to pick up a 50-pound bag of copper sulfate and carry it across the floor,” Rose says. “Then they called me back again, I had to go there and prove that I could roll a 150-pound cylinder. Then I got the job.”

Rose's retirement

Rose retired at the end of August after 24 years in treatment plant operations. But even though automation and modern technology have made traditionally labor-intensive careers such as water treatment more open to women, there are still very few female operators out there.

She was the first female operator ever hired at the Elizabethtown plant, and is one of only a few women across the nation to have made a 24-year career out of it. Before joining that crew, Rose had no prior experience in water treatment — just a degree in biology from University of Louisville.

“I know women can do it, but still a lot of times people think women can’t do it,” Rose says. “It’s really a ‘good old boy’ network — a lot of water treatment. Basically they’re all men, so it’s a little hard for women to get in.”

If the old way of thinking that women can’t handle the job was frustrating in 1995, it’s even worse now that physical barriers are an outdated argument.

“It’s gotten to where it’s not as hard as it used to be. Stuff is automatic now, there’s not as much to pick up — not anymore,” Rose says. “I remember one or two ladies that came in and started to work, but they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But at the very first is trying to prove that yes, I can do this stuff.”

With an ongoing shortage of qualified operators nationwide, treatment plants everywhere are searching for new ways to recruit talent, and looking to the female workforce may be one piece of the puzzle.

“Send women operators out there to high schools, career days — to me, that would be one way to get more women in,” Rose says. “Because I know there’s been women in treatment plants, but it would probably help to let a woman tell the kids, especially female students: ‘If you’re good at math and science, think of this as a career option.’”

Despite the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry, Rose is happy to have made a long career out of water treatment.

“You will eventually get some good money, and we all try to take care of each other,” Rose says. “Send the women out, and let them show that yes, women are in here.”


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