Drinking Water and Wastewater Operators, the Work Behind our Water

by Felicia Bechtoldt

March 14, 2019

When you turn on your faucet and fill a glass with pure, clean water, do you ever wonder how it got there? When you rinse your glass and the water spills down the drain, do you think about where it goes? For most of us, we take this modern wonder for granted and can’t imagine life without the convenience of running water in our homes. My grandmother sure would have appreciated it. She needed to carry five buckets of water a day from an open well to provide all the water she needed for her family, and she could not have imagined the sophisticated infrastructure used to deliver water to households in a modern American city.

Today, drinking water and wastewater operators use computerized systems to monitor plant processes, operate equipment to purify water, and process and dispose of wastewater. Water is pumped or gravity fed from a natural source to a water treatment plant, where the water is purified prior to being sent into a water distribution system, eventually arriving at your faucet. (For people living a few miles outside of a town, water is directly pumped from an underground aquifer into the household.) When the water flows down your drain, it enters a collection network, which conveys wastewater to wastewater treatment plants. The treatment plants then treat the wastewater, so it can be safely released to the environment. At both plants drinking water and wastewater operators work quietly behind the scenes to ensure the water we drink is safe and the wastewater we generate returns safely back to the environment.

Opportunity and Transferrable Skills

Drinking water and wastewater operator is an occupation well-suited for those with an interest in mechanics, technology, computers, and hands-on work. Depending on the type and size of a treatment plant, the job duties of an operator can vary significantly. In small plants, there may be only one operator responsible for all operations, laboratory analysis, maintenance, source control, and collection systems. In large plants, multiple operators perform specialized tasks that are small segments of an entire processing operation.

The aging workforce and anticipated retirements are concerns to the water industry. According to the American Water Works Association, a large number of water industry employees are nearing retirement age or are currently eligible for retirement. In Oregon, replacements make up all of the total annual openings mostly due to the aging labor force and retirements. As retiring operators empty the ranks of the profession, there are great opportunities for workers seeking career advancement, higher wages, benefits, flexible work schedules, choice of employment location, and employer-supported trainings.    

“This occupation could be a great fit for veterans that are coming from the military with a lot of transferable skills in mechanics, equipment operation and engineering,” says Mark Ingman, former program coordinator at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Wastewater System Operator Certification Program. Sailors and soldiers have done a lot of mechanical and engineering work and understand the basic principles of operating systems. Ingman, a veteran himself, says that veterans are a good match, because many of the skills veterans gain in the military align with this type of work.

Future Openings

There were 1,261 drinking water and wastewater operators employed in Oregon in 2017. Given the need for certified drinking water and wastewater operators, during 2017 and 2018, 1,752 operators were certified by the Oregon Health Authority and 1,472 operators were certified by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. More than one-third of certified operators hold certifications from both agencies. Additional workers with these certifications are also captured in several management, supervisory and maintenance roles in our occupational data, but those occupations also include other workers in a variety of settings. Drinking water and wastewater operators are employed in high numbers across the state. In 2017, the Portland tri-county region and Northwest Oregon employed the highest number of total operators, 356 and 239 operators, respectively. The Columbia Gorge and the Rogue Valley employed the lowest number of operators at 23 and 43 operators, respectively.
Although improving technologies have decreased the size of the workforce for water and wastewater treatment plant operators overall, as preceding generations retire, new workers will be needed to replace them. According to the Oregon Employment Department, the operator workforce is projected to shrink by 2.9 percent overall between 2017 and 2027. However, due to retirements, there will still be a need for 101 replacement workers each year. This is on par with national outlook for drinking water and wastewater operators. Between 2017 and 2027, Eastern Oregon and the Mid-Willamette Valley region are projected to experience positive employment growth at 3.3 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively.

A Rewarding Job

Because of the high skill level required for this occupation, the wages are also high. In Oregon, wages for drinking water and wastewater operators ranged between a 10th percentile wage of $18.43 per hour and a 90th percentile wage of $37.28. At the 10th percentile wage, 10 percent of workers in the occupation earn less, and 90 percent earn more. The 10th percentile represents entry-level wages in the occupation, while the 90th percentile represents pay after a long career in this field.
The median annual wage for this occupation in Oregon was $57,138, which makes it a high-wage occupation. Wages for this occupation are high across the state. The highest median wages are in the Portland metro area with $66,227, Clackamas with $62,171, and Lane with $60,424. High wages are also paid in the Rogue Valley ($57,574), the East Cascades ($55,494), and the Mid-Valley ($55,224).

Developing Your Career

Depending on location and the type of job you would like to pursue, there are various certifications that allow one to advance to higher levels in this occupation. Many small communities require their operators to be certified in drinking water and wastewater systems. That is why many operators in smaller communities have both types of certifications. The requirements for drinking water and wastewater certifications share similarities. Applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED, be enrolled in a water quality and wastewater treatment management program, or have experience in the field.

The Oregon Health Authority’s Drinking Water Services provides two separate types of certification for drinking water operators:

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Wastewater System Operator Certification Program provides certifications for wastewater system operators:
  • Operator-In-Training pathway to certification
  • Provisional Grade I Certificate
  • Grade I-IV Collection and Treatment certificates; and
  • Small System Wastewater Operator Certificate.
Operator-In-Training and Provisional Grade I are entry-level certifications for individuals that have a high school diploma or GED and don’t have the experience of routine performance of operator duties. They must be enrolled in a water quality and wastewater treatment management program. Such programs are offered by Clackamas Community College, Linn-Benton Community College, and Umpqua Community College. Online programs offered by the Office of Water Programs, California State University in Sacramento are an option as well.

“Certification for wastewater system operators should not be seen as barrier for those interested in working in this field,” says Mark Ingman. Depending on employers, certifications for wastewater operators may not be required. Some employers may require workers to be certified in six months, others in 12 months, but others may not require a certification at all. “Many of these employers need workers to perform the daily routine tasks under the supervision of a certified operator,” says Ingman. All wastewater systems must at least have one or more operators certified at the sufficient grade in order for the system to remain in operation.

High-Skill Occupation

Drinking water and wastewater operator is a high-skill occupation. Operators carefully monitor flow rates, pressure levels, water level and distribution, and regulate the flow of treated and untreated water into and out of these plants. They are also responsible for complying with strict water quality standards set forth by federal, state and local agencies.

Performing these duties requires knowledge and skills, such as chemistry theory, hydraulics principles, water and ventilation systems, basic plumbing, math, and statistics. It also requires the ability to understand operating manuals and plumbing specifications, operate precision measuring devices, and communicate technical information.

In addition, “There is a lot of high-tech going on in this field,” says Ingman. Today, operators can turn on a pump, get alarms, and monitor and control systems remotely from their office through advanced software. Examples of computer programs used in this field are supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, human machine interface (HMI) software, and wastewater expert control systems.

How to Find Jobs in this Occupation

Most drinking water and wastewater operators are employed by public utilities, cities, and counties. In Oregon, more than 76 percent of operators were employed in the public sector and about 23 percent were employed in the private sector in 2017. In the private sector, operators are employed in a wide range of industries: water, sewage and other systems; food manufacturing; computer and electronics manufacturing; transportation equipment manufacturing; primary and fabricated metal product manufacturing; paper manufacturing and accommodation. Other employment opportunities for operators include national parks and private campgrounds.

One of the most effective job search methods for this occupation is to look directly on the employers’ websites. A useful website for jobs in local government is www.governmentjobs.com. Other job openings in both public and private sectors are listed on Job Finder at www.QualityInfo.org. In your job search, use the following key words: “water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator”, “water companies – utilities”, “contract operations for water and wastewater treatment”, “laboratories - analytical”, “water filtration and purification equipment”, or “environmental and ecological services.”

To learn more about opportunities in this occupation and how to prepare for this job, explore www.workforwater.org.

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