Are Apprenticeship Programs the Answer to Operator Shortage?

Are Apprenticeship Programs the Answer to Operator Shortage?

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There’s no time like the present to start planning for the water/wastewater operator retirement wave. That’s the thought process behind a new apprenticeship program in Vermont that is generating a surprising amount of interest.

With many operations specialists at drinking water and wastewater treatment plants across Vermont approaching retirement age and a shortage of trained professionals to fill their places, the Vermont Rural Water Association is spearheading an apprenticeship program to train the next generation of water and wastewater operators in communities throughout the state.

The program will provide water utilities with the new employees they need as well as providing job training — and an alternative to an expensive college education — to Vermonters.

Program Coordinator Paula Jackson says the association got the program started via funding through the National Rural Water Association and Vermont Rural Water Association. “They have appropriated funding so that every state rural water association could have an apprenticeship program because of the lack of young people coming into the water profession and the operators are nearing retirement age,” she says.

Apprentices must have a high school diploma or equivalent to be accepted into the program, which offers a two-year, full-time position that includes a salary. The program provides apprentices with 288 hours of classroom instruction and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training.

Apprentices learn about the chemistry, microbiology, environmental science and mechanics needed to operate treatment plants, and the cost of that education is paid by the program. At the treatment plants, apprentices train under professional operators.

Jackson says she would highly recommend this program to other associations throughout the country. “In the past, systems would advertise and try to find workers — qualified or unqualified,” she says. "This program is similar to an apprentice plumber or electrician and provides two years of training and coursework for the apprentice. The other component is paying them a wage that will retain them in that water system. This is a good program to train new employees and give them goals that will make them journeyman water and wastewater treatment operators. And I think we will see the wage for these positions slowly rise with fewer qualified workers.”

The shortage of water utility employees is not unique to Vermont. Communities across the nation are having a hard time recruiting the next generation of water and wastewater operators. In the next five to 10 years, more than half of the most skilled water professionals will retire, taking decades of institutional knowledge with them.

Similar apprenticeship programs, in partnership with the National Rural Water Association and the Department of Labor, have been established in other states. Vermont’s program is the first in New England.   

Utilities are already on board

Jackson says the response to the program is even better than the association expected. “I have been the apprenticeship program coordinator for two months and I have had an overwhelming response from the water and wastewater systems,” she says. “And I have not completely gone all out advertising for apprentices because I want to establish a pool of employers looking for workers first.”

However, the little advertising the program has done for apprentices so far has been surprising with the amount of interest that’s out there, according to Jackson. “I think when I set up the employer pool and the apprentice pool and have the program up and running completely, we may become the organization water and wastewater systems look to for filling their positions.”

Another crucial component to filling the retirement gap, she says, is learning how to promote water resources as a career option for young people. “It’s hard to compete with other professions when trying to entice young people into this field at a career day event and such. We have to make water resources cool somehow,” she says with a laugh. 

While upping the “cool factor” of water/wastewater treatment is important to draw people in, the practical benefits of choosing a career in the industry can’t be overstated. “I have been in the water resources field for 35 years and there are all kinds of jobs available — I have never been out of work,” says Jackson. “I have been an operator, trainer, technical assistance provider, and now an apprenticeship coordinator. There are endless jobs that need to be filled with the younger generation.” For more information about the Vermont Rural Water Association or the apprenticeship program, visit www.vtruralwater.org.



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