U.S. Department of Labor Approves Guidelines for Wastewater Operator Apprenticeship

February 28, 2013

Featured, WEF Resources & Efforts

WEF developed apprenticeship standards that provide pathway into the profession

Evidence of commitment to operators by the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) continues to grow. In 2010, WEF launched its Operator Initiative to provide knowledge and services to wastewater systems operations personnel. As part of this initiative, WEF has obtained U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approval of National Guidelines for Wastewater Systems Operator Apprenticeship Standards.

Wastewater operator apprentices receive hands-on training and learn various topics

Owen Smith, program and policy analyst in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, along with the bureau and other partners began developing the state’s operator apprenticeship program after industry representatives expressed a need for more operators. Photo courtesy of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

Owen Smith, program and policy analyst in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, along with the bureau and other partners began developing the state’s operator apprenticeship program after industry representatives expressed a need for more operators. Photo courtesy of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

The standards, developed as a joint effort of WEF and DOL, define minimum education and on-the-job training requirements for wastewater system operator apprentices and establish a point of entry into the profession.

“The Water Environment Federation National Guidelines for Apprenticeship Standards provides a structured and uniform approach to training apprentices in the wastewater systems operations field,” said Chad Aleshire, DOL Division of Program Administration and Management Services program analyst.

The standards, which WEF submitted on Sept. 24 and DOL accepted on Nov. 1, require apprentices to complete 3520 hours of on-the-job training and 480 hours of related instruction, which takes approximately 2 years to complete. Instruction is structured around the six core topics, or “pillars,” of orientation and safety, operations, maintenance, quality control, logistics, and administration. And a component of the instruction focuses on theoretical aspects of the occupation, such as math, science, an introduction to wastewater treatment systems, and basic electricity and electrical systems, Aleshire said.

Program requirements “capture the most current industry practices for wastewater systems operators,” Aleshire said. And the “blend” of requirements “offers apprentices a more diverse approach to becoming well-rounded wastewater systems operators,” he added.

“We believe that widespread adoption of the national standards will lead to more consistency in training and certification, an elevated profile for the operator profession, and greater opportunities for reciprocity,” said Christine Radke, WEF technical and educational program manager.

Supplying industries with a skilled workforce

An operator works at DC Water’s (Washington, D.C.) Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of John Clarke.

An operator works at DC Water’s (Washington, D.C.) Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of John Clarke.

The new federal apprenticeship program joins a long list of DOL’s nearly 29,000 sponsored apprenticeships, according to the DOL Registered Apprenticeship website. The program has been active for more than 75 years, providing a skilled workforce that keeps pace with innovations and technological advances in various fields.

After approving the Wastewater System Operator Apprenticeship Program, DOL announced it to the state-level DOL offices, known as Office of Apprenticeships (OAs) and State Apprenticeship Agencies (SAAs). These offices are working to introduce and implement the program at wastewater utilities nationwide. DOL already has 20 participants in 17 registered Wastewater System Operator Apprenticeship programs, Aleshire said.

Apprentices are employed by the utility, organization, or company sponsoring the program, and after completion, employers can decide whether to continue employing the apprentices. “Our data suggests that 87.4% of all apprentices are employed after completing an apprenticeship program, and 87.9% are retained 6 months later,” Aleshire said.

National standards model programs in Wisconsin and South Carolina

Even though the National Guidelines for Wastewater Systems Operator Apprenticeship Standards are available to all U.S. states, wastewater operator apprentice programs already existed under DOL at the local level. States with an SAA are able to develop their own apprentice programs as needed.

In the past few years, Wisconsin and South Carolina saw a need for apprenticeships in the wastewater treatment industry. These programs provided a model for the national standards developed by WEF, Radke explained.

“Apprenticeship is tried-and-true on-the-job training,” said Reggie Newson, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development secretary.

The Wisconsin Apprenticeship Program for wastewater treatment plant operators was implemented in October 2011 by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The state began developing the program after wastewater industry representatives expressed a need for more operators. “They approached us about designing an apprenticeship program to train the next generation of operators,” said Owen Smith, program and policy analyst in the department’s Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.

In addition, a state advisory committee that includes treatment plant representatives, operators, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources helped develop the content of the program and continues to monitor the program. “It’s set up for industry to make any necessary changes to ensure that the training is going to be state of the art,” Smith said. Currently, Wisconsin is in the process of introducing the program and registering any interested utilities.

The Wisconsin and national programs share similar content, but Wisconsin’s program requires 5568 hours of on-the-job training and 432 hours of education, which amounts to about 1 year longer than the national program. It also requires apprentices to earn four credentials from the WI Department of Natural Resources. But the educational component can be completed entirely through online courses at Moraine Park Technical College (Fond du Lac, Wis.), Smith said. “This allows apprentices to access the training anywhere in the state,” he said. Wisconsin also requires apprentices to demonstrate competency along the way as a formal measure of progress, he said.

“The very exciting thing about having national standards is now other states [that] have not considered a wastewater treatment plant operator apprenticeship … now have minimum standards that they can follow,” Smith said.

South Carolina’s wastewater treatment plant operator apprenticeship falls under Apprenticeship Carolina, a division of South Carolina Technical College System (Columbia) which helps companies develop apprenticeship programs at no cost. “[Apprenticeship Carolina] was created to help advance the apprenticeship concept in our state. They have been a tremendous asset to our college and our participating industries and utilities,” said Elizabeth Williams, director of South Carolina Environmental Training Center at Central Carolina Technical College (Sumter). Williams worked with an Apprenticeship Carolina employee to develop and initiate the water and wastewater operator apprentice program.

Operators work together at Loudoun Water’s (Ashburn, Va.) Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility. Photo courtesy of John Clarke.

Operators work together at Loudoun Water’s (Ashburn, Va.) Broad Run Water Reclamation Facility. Photo courtesy of John Clarke.

In addition to on-the-job training and education, South Carolina’s operator apprenticeship includes a wage progression component, Williams said. Apprentices who successfully complete program benchmarks are able to earn an increase in their wage. The South Carolina licensing board also has recognized the benefits of the program and allows operators to advance their licensure level more quickly if they demonstrate competency at the appropriate levels. This is a notable component of the program, because operators in South Carolina have to wait 1 year between each level of license, making it “difficult for operators to advance quickly,” Williams said. This apprenticeship program not only allows an entry point into the industry but also allows operators who have the competency to advance more quickly, she explained.

South Carolina’s program also is extremely flexible, allowing utilities to decide the length of the program, which can range between 1 and 4 years, and to decide how the education component will be delivered, from online credits to in-house training, Williams said. This flexibility makes it easier for small and mid-size facilities to institute the program. “It’s just a really well-rounded program,” Williams said.

South Carolina’s first wastewater apprenticeship program began in 2009; now there are four utilities and three private companies sponsoring wastewater treatment plant operators or water treatment operators, said Brad Neese, director of Apprenticeship Carolina.

The college still is working to spread the word about these opportunities, Williams said. “It’s something new, something completely different,” she said. “Utilities can see the benefits and flexibility in the program.”

The next steps

WEF plans to begin spreading the word about the apprenticeship program to utilities, as well as continue to provide additional resources under the Operator Initiative banner. Any employer that wants to establish a Registered Apprenticeship program should contact the local OA or SAA, which can be located through DOL’s Office of Apprenticeship website.

Find more details about resources WEF offers to operators in the Highlights article “WEF Operator Initiative Makes the Profession a Priority.”

— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

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