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Some of the most crucial pieces of infrastructure are water and wastewater utilities, yet it seems to hide right under our noses. We depend on clean water to supply our homes and run our businesses, and the reliable work of specialized technicians is important to our everyday lives. Today wastewater utility and treatment plants across the state are turning to apprenticeships to teach future generations the knowledge and skills needed to power our lives with water.
“There’s not a business, school or household that can function without clean water and wastewater management,” says Jeannie Shurbet, Apprenticeship Program Coordinator at the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. “These jobs are as essential as you get, so staffing our water utility systems with well-trained professionals is important.”
In her position as Apprenticeship Program Coordinator, Shurbet helps connect incoming apprentices with water utility systems across the state. The Oklahoma Rural Water Association launched an apprentice program in 2020, and today their future water utility professionals are splitting their time between learning on the job and classroom instruction. Due to the essential nature of staffing water treatment plants, the program has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People seeking careers don’t understand all that goes into providing safe, sustainable water resources, so they often overlook our industry,” said Shurbet. “It was our intent to provide a pipeline for a sustainable, knowledgeable, workforce for our industry. Mentors with years of experience can show new technicians that the industry uses up-to-date technology and the avenues for specialty skills are vast. We fly drones and use high tech sensors to find leaks. Our Operations Specialists run lab tests daily to ensure water quality. There’s so much new technology that wasn’t available in the past and it takes long-term mentorship to learn it.”
System managers across the state want to train employees with consistent levels of knowledge using ORWA as the standard. By creating their own curriculum, ORWA is building the next generation of skilled water utility operators in Oklahoma. The apprenticeship program is new for the industry. The National Rural Water Association forged the way for the program in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor. Every state has a rural water association, and today it is responsible for its respective states’ apprenticeship programs.
The Oklahoma Office for Workforce Development has offered support and recruiting tools for a program that will graduate Operations Specialists with a wide array of skills and knowledge across water utility and related utility fields. Quality, consistent training is vital in an industry that impacts the public health of communities. The program is multifaceted and addresses the importance of clean, quality water in a variety of ways, including classroom instruction on safety standards.
“When we designed the program we realized not every water utility system is the same,” said Shurbet. “Some are large, surface water high tech treatment systems; some use public septic; and others are small groundwater systems. We arrange many opportunities for apprentices to see types of treatment technologies at different locations. We want our apprentices to be well rounded so they can work anywhere and on a variety of systems when they’re finished with the program.”
Once apprentices are accepted into the program and signed up with a utility system, they are employees of their respective utility systems and will collect hourly pay through the duration of their training.
ORWA currently offers two training tracks, Water Systems Operations Specialist or Wastewater Systems Operations Specialist. Each track takes two years, and apprentices may choose one or both. Some classes do have associated expenses, and thanks to a partnership between ORWA and Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, the GI bill does cover those expenses for veterans entering the program. Rigorous training prepares graduating apprentices for employment at any water and wastewater treatment plant in Oklahoma, as well as other positions related to the industry.
A day in the life of a water operations specialist can vary depending on which system they are assigned to and how unique each system may be. However, there are common requirements across the board, such as logistical checks. Technicians check each water well or system components daily and take readings on water pressure and number of gallons pumped per day. Technicians also monitor for leaks and help people in the community solve problems with water pressure issues and are required to maintain pipelines in the ground. Some water systems are a “one man show” where a technician needs to master all the tasks and functions, and others are larger and automated, so technicians cover a narrower set of responsibilities on a larger scale.
“We incorporated multiple credentialing options into our apprenticeship program. Many of which pertain - not just our industry but all industries - and even though we may lose people to other jobs because the apprentice program will qualify them for other employment options, we feel it’s worth it. We want well trained staff no matter where they’re working,” said Shurbet.
Water treatment is a public service, and ORWA wants apprentices to be excited about the responsibility. This service to our neighbors keeps whole communities running, and with our nation’s renewed appreciation for essential services, there is tremendous pride in those often-overlooked basic services we all depend on. Long-time staffers enjoy fulfilling careers in water treatment and are eager to mentor the next generation of water utility professionals to meet the water needs of Oklahomans.