Six Steps to Solving Treatment Plant Staffing Issues

Six Steps to Solving Treatment Plant Staffing Issues

The water and wastewater workforce is rapidly graying. A report from the Water Research Foundation estimated in 2010 that between 30 and 50% of the workforce could retire within the decade. The next generation of water and wastewater treatment staff will need to have the technical expertise or the adaptability to learn how to operate and maintain sophisticated SCADA systems and the complex mechanical systems at treatment facilities.

Outlined here are six possible steps to help utilities develop a successful treatment plant staffing and succession planning strategy.

Step 1: Evaluate Your Staffing Needs

Given, the budget challenges at the Federal, state, and local level, treatment facilities should always look for ways to operate more efficiently. Advanced SCADA systems generally enable a plant to operate with fewer staff or allow an operator to work remotely or on-call. (For more info on getting the most out of your control system, download our free whitepaper.) Control system improvements at the water treatment facility in the Town of Ashland, MA, permitted remote operations, which saved the town $72,000 a year in staff costs. Enhanced automation also provides existing staff with the ability to focus less on manual processes and instead complete preventive maintenance, implement upgrades, or assist at other municipal plants.

Step 2: Provide Internships to Students from Local Colleges and Technical Schools

Internships not only provide an opportunity for the water and wastewater treatment industry to introduce potential employees to a good career, they also offer plant managers a great resource for hiring. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found 86% of interns who were then offered full-time jobs accepted those positions.

The key to a successful internship is to think ahead about how to keep the intern engaged in meaningful work. It’s also important to make certain the intern is properly trained to stay safe in the working environment.

Step 3: Identify People in Related Fields as a Resource for Filling Open Positions

A military veteran with significant on-the-job training or a tradesperson from another industry are often a good fit for plant operator or management positions. For example, an electrician from another industry became a certified operator and is now the plant manager at one of Woodard & Curran’s largest facilities.

Plant operator training

Step 4: Develop Training Programs to Enhance Staff Skills

Training programs that reinforce best practices, encourage leadership development, and advance certification and licensing are essential to promoting job satisfaction and improving facility performance. Two years ago, Woodard & Curran created the “Plant Manager in Training” program that provides high-potential operators with the leadership skills to become successful plant managers. The program offers one-on-one mentoring and several days of intensive training on topics such as compliance, budgeting, and management through effective communication.

Step 5: Offer Competitive Wages

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the annual median salary for water and wastewater operators is $42,760. This lags behind other utility industry careers in gas, electric, and nuclear power operations. For jobs that have advanced prerequisites, higher wages will be required to attract skilled workers to the profession.

Step 6: Consider Contract Operations

Many small and mid-sized utilities lack the resources required to stay ahead of regulations and state-of-the-art technology. A contract operations firm that specializes in water and wastewater operations has the supervisory and managerial personnel available to support onsite staff. The firm should also be able to offer an operations plan and staffing strategy that address the issues and needs of the system at a cost that is reasonable and affordable.

Challenges Ahead

Despite an increase in automation, the BLS estimates that there will be a 12% growth in water and wastewater treatment plant system operator positions through the end of the decade. Finding skilled workers will be challenging; however, by using the strategies outlined here, water and wastewater treatment facilities will find the talented staff they need to maintain successful operations.

Steve Niro presented a paper and discussion on this topic at the 2013 WEFTEC conference. Members of the Water Environment Federation can download the paper and other workforce strategy discussions at weftec2013.conferencespot.org.

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