Building a Younger Workforce

Connecticut water utility program immerses high school students in career opportunities

Dave Kuzminski
Dave Kuzminski

The Portland Water Department in Portland, Connecticut, is no different than many utilities nationwide that are contending with the so-called silver tsunami — a rising tidal wave of retirements exacerbated by a shrinking labor pool of qualified replacements.

But the department differs from many others in that it’s actively taking steps to educate high school students about the many career opportunities available in the water- and sewer-management industries. In fact, 67 high school seniors have taken a specially developed course called Water and People, says Dave Kuzminski, technology coordinator for the town of Portland.

“It gives them a good idea of the career options out there,” he says. “There are a lot of careers that fall under the water-system umbrella, such as engineering, construction, human resources, accounting, meter reading, water-sampling technicians and chemists.”

The ultimate goal of the course is to produce certified operators for small water systems. So far, it’s working, albeit on a small scale. Of those 67 students who’ve taken the course during the seven years it’s been offered, 27 went on to earn certification as state small water-system operators. And three of those students now work at local water utilities, he says, including Kyle Armstrong, 24, who is now a Class II water operator for the Water Pollution Control Authority in East Hampton.

“The Water and People course really opened my eyes to different career opportunities in the water industry,” says Armstrong, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer information technology. He was hired by the WCPA in 2015, two years after he graduated from high school. “It gave us a lot of background in multiple areas, including the lab potion of water treatment, as well as the safety side, plus non-water-related jobs, like customer service.”

Would Armstrong have known about, much less been interested in, a water-utility job without the program? “Absolutely not,” he says. “I had no idea jobs like that were even out there. You don’t hear about water treatment careers as much as other jobs.”

In addition, taking the class and passing the certification exam motivated him to keep traveling further down the utility career path. “Getting the license gave me the drive to want to do something with it,” he explains. “I didn’t just want a piece of paper that I’d never put to good use.”

Armstrong’s job at the authority’s centers on testing water once a day at three plants to be sure the chlorine residual and pH levels are within the proper safety range. He finds the part-time job (he also works full-time as an information technology specialist) both challenging and fulfilling. Better yet, the hourly wage actually is higher than what he earns at his full-time job, he adds.

“I like it because I’m doing something important — providing clean water to hundreds of households and businesses that we serve,” he says.

From scratch

Planning for the Water and People program started in 2006 as municipal officials realized they faced a crisis. At the time, more than 40% of the state’s 1,020 certified distribution and treatment operators were eligible to retire within five years. And that figure now is closer to 45%, Kuzminski says.

“It’s a systemic problem in the industry, and I felt we had to address this — make sure students are aware of careers in the water industry,” explains Kuzminski, former chairman of the Connecticut Section of the American Water Works Association. “We felt we had to start at the grassroots level and let students know there are great-paying careers available. And they’re secure positions, too. You can’t outsource these jobs to India. You need local boots on the ground.”

Kuzminski had already built a solid connection over the years with Portland High School while serving as the co-coordinator of an educational partnership program that gave students a chance to work on real-life town projects. So after school officials approved of the concept, he met with Bill Sullivan, head of the Drinking Water Section of the state Department of Public Health (which certifies water system operators), to develop a high school level curriculum.

“We had to tailor a curriculum that would meet the needs and satisfy the requirements of the state-certification program but still make it appropriate for high school students,” Kuzminski says. “Typically, college students would take such a class. But that’s what made this so unique — it was the first state-certified high school program.”

From concept to reality

The 72-hour course, held during the second semester of school, was open only to seniors and offered as an elective class. Normally, anyone who takes the state-certification test must be 18 and a high school graduate, he notes.

“But the state worked with us and waved that rule, as long as we could show that the student was in good standing and was likely to graduate on time,” he says.

In addition, to provide extra motivation to take the course, students who pass the state-certification exam are also eligible to receive 3.5 credits toward a basic-level environmental class at nearby Gateway Community College, Kuzminski adds.

Are students generally surprised about the careers available in the water industry? Yes and no, Kuzminski concedes. “It’s like any class, where some students become very engaged and others think it’s nothing more than a neat class to take as an elective,” he says.

During the first year in 2009, 12 students took the course and three passed the state certification exam. The curriculum undergoes an annual evaluation to ensure it fulfills the needs of students and the state. “We’re constantly tweaking the curriculum,” he says.

Moving the needle

Has the course achieved its goal? Absolutely, Kuzminski says. “It’s been a very successful program. We’d consider it a success even if only one student passed the certification exam.”

In some cases, students who didn’t choose career paths in the water and sewer industries did obtain jobs in related fields, and Kuzminski believes the exposure they received via the program nudged them toward these secure, well-paying jobs. “The bottom line is that had they not taken this course, they never would’ve known the career opportunities that exist,” he says.

The program hasn’t always enjoyed smooth sailing, however. For example, the class was cancelled for several years after a change in the high school’s administrative leadership, then was reborn in 2017 at Bloomfield High School.

That disruption underscores some of the challenges that can emerge if other utilities try to develop similar programs. Sometimes program advocates at the school retire or leave their jobs, for example. Or educational and funding priorities change.

“Politics always plays a big role in things like this,” he says. “You have to be persistent because it can be a struggle at times. People might want to take the course in different directions, but you have to ensure it still meets the state’s content requirements.”

More outreach

Since Water and People was introduced, Kuzminski has broadened the concept by helping to create other programs that expose even more students to career opportunities. One is called Learn and Earn — Water Boot Camp, a four-week-long summer partnership with the Metropolitan District Commission, a water-and-sewer utility based in Hartford.

The program enables eight to 10 high school juniors and seniors, selected from eight member towns within the commission’s service area, to receive two weeks of instruction in how water and sewer utilities operate. After the first two weeks, the participating students then get embedded for two weeks in a department of the Metropolitan District Commission, immersing them in various operations. The students get paid for all four weeks.

“It’s basically the Water and People curriculum on steroids,” explains Kuzminski, who has more than four decades of experience in the water industry. “We bring in the kids and expose them to the tasks within the water industry. They make filters, help with watershed inspections, get tours of treatment plans and facilities, and so forth.”

The town water department also hosts a booth at as many regional career fairs as possible. In short, Kuzminski uses as many channels as possible when it comes to exposing students to career opportunities in the water industry.

“I’m now targeting seventh and eighth graders, too,” he says. “We need to get things on students’ radars earlier — let them know about these great careers.”


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