Preparing for the Water Industry's Future

Hands-on classes and internships open students’ eyes to water and sewer industry careers.

Preparing for the Water Industry's Future

Cristal Velasco (left) and Florentino Rivera learned how to replace a main valve assembly on a fire hydrant as part of a water system operator’s course they took as seniors at Barbara Cardwell Career Preparatory School in Irving, Texas.

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A little more than a decade ago, two veteran Irving (Texas) Water Utilities employees — David Canady and the late Dennis King — decided  to do something about a growing problem: The dearth of younger people interested in working at water and sewer utilities.

In 2008, Canady, the utility’s operations manager, and King, then the supervisor of environmental compliance, met with officials at the Irving Independent School District to discuss how to make students aware of careers in the water and sewer industries.

The result? A basic water operations course for senior students, based at Barbara Cardwell Career Preparatory Center, a nontraditional high school. Initially taught by Canady and King, the course prepares students to qualify for a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Class D water operator’s license, says Barry Allen, water programs specialist for the utility, which operates water and sewer systems for the city of Irving.

“It’s an entry-level position with no experience required,” Allen says. “It helps students get their foot in the door at water and sewer utilities.”

In 2009, the district added another course aimed at helping students obtain a wastewater collections I license. In all, more than 200 students have taken the courses, which later shifted from Cardwell Prep to Chester W. Nimitz High School.

Furthermore, about 100 of those students have passed the exams for either the water operator’s license, the wastewater collections license or both, making them eligible to apply for jobs as licensed water or sewer operators. Five of those students were hired by IWU, and two still work there, says Allen, who helps teach the water operator’s course.

Departing baby boomers

Like many water and sewer utilities nationwide, IWU is doing its best to prepare for the so-called silver tsunami — the expected wave of baby boomers who are eligible to retire during the coming decade. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 8.2% of water operators will leave their jobs between 2016 and 2026, and industry experts estimate that thousands of water utility operators will retire during the coming decade.

“I’m getting ready to retire myself and so is David,” Allen says. “I’m in my 35th year in the industry. We have a hard time finding qualified operators at the entry level. But if students get a license, they can transition into the industry a lot easier.”

At IWU, roughly 31% of the workforce of 168 employees is eligible for retirement within the next decade. And while helping 100 students earn water operator’s licenses and then hiring five of them doesn’t by itself serve as a comprehensive succession plan, it’s at least alerting students to possible careers that they otherwise might not be aware of, he notes.

“It’s 100 more people than we otherwise would’ve had,” Allen says. “The more we can do at a young age, the better off we are as an industry. It’s totally a win-win situation.”

Allen points out that some students eventually lose interest and don’t pursue utility careers. Others move away from Irving for various reasons. And other circumstances also intervene, which makes it difficult for all of those 100 students to possibly become employees.

On the other hand, they also aren’t limited just to jobs at municipal utilities in Texas; the license makes them eligible to work at privately owned water systems or at other entities that operate their own water systems, he says.

Internships added

The school district and IWU also created an unpaid summer internship program run by the utility in 2009 and 2010. After that, the internships were folded into the students’ high school curriculum, operated by the school district.

About three to five seniors participate in the internship program each year. They must complete one of the classes and pass a licensing exam in order to be eligible. Once selected, they come to the utility for about 2 1/2 hours a day, Monday through Thursday, for the entire school year, and they receive credits toward graduation as long as they complete the internship.

“Donna Starling, our water programs manager, and I interview students to select the interns,” Allen says. “They’re selected based on how well they interview and on their aptitude for and interest in a career in the water and sewer industry.”

About 20 students have participated in the internship program, which Allen says has been very successful. The internship emphasizes hands-on experience; students spend time in the utility’s command center, learn how water is distributed throughout the system, work with environmental-compliance employees and perform industrial pretreatment stormwater sampling, he says.

Hands-on experience is key

The curriculum for the water operator’s class is based on a classroom manual developed by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. It includes 20 hours’ instruction as part of the school’s agricultural sciences curriculum.

Students attend the class for about 1 1/2 hours for three to four days a week, as opposed to a non-high schooler who would get 20 hours’ instruction in 2 1/2 days, Allen says. “That allows us to add supplemental, hands-on components to the instruction that the shorter time frame doesn’t allow for. We take field trips and do things that help students to better understand what all goes into operating a water system.”

Students get to flush fire hydrants, perform water taps and meter change-outs, experience confined-space entry, measure chlorine residuals with a colorimeter and tour the city’s water and wastewater plants. They also hear managers, engineers and other employees talk about what their jobs entail.

“They get a very well-rounded look at all aspects of water and sewer utility operations,” Allen says.

IWU has a built-in advantage that makes it easier to teach the class: Three employees are certified Texas Commission on Environmental Quality instructors. Without certified instructors, a utility or school district would have to hire them from other cities to teach such a class, which isn’t always feasible, Allen notes.

In the long run, Allen is proud of what the utility has accomplished and hopes to help other communities start similar high school programs. Moreover, he’s not deterred by the low number of students who actually became water operators in Irving, noting that there’s intangible value in what hundreds of students have learned.

“Even if they do go elsewhere or do other things, they still have gained a deep understanding of how water utilities work and how important the utilities are to communities,” he says. “And they can disseminate that information to others because they’re knowledgeable about it.”

Editor’s Note:

This is the first in a series of ongoing articles that will examine how water and sewer utilities are confronting the industry’s looming labor shortage.


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