Preventing Loss of Operators to Environmental Management Positions

July 2, 2014


John Seldon, WEF Member and Founder of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.


John Seldon, a Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) member since 1980, is founder and president of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc. (Port Burwell, Ontario) and a principal of Envir-O-Site Inc. (Sarnia, Ontario). During his career, Seldon has focused on optimizing municipal and industrial solids collection and dewatering systems. Since entering the wastewater field in 1973, Seldon has

  • developed and taught courses for water resource recovery facility operators;
  • published articles and research reports on various topics, such as biosolids, regulations, and operations;
  • presented research at many wastewater industry events;
  • worked as a technical support superintendent, in wastewater equipment sales, and as a project manager;
  • joined the Canadian Institute of Planners (Ottawa, Ontario), Ontario Professional Planners Institute (Toronto), and Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (Etobicoke);
  • become a certified engineering technologist and registered professional planner;
  • obtained certification in environmental assessment; and
  • earned a master’s degree in regional planning and resource development from the University of Waterloo (Ontario).

When we have operators trained as technologists in our water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs), how will we not lose them to environmental management positions?

When it comes to skill sets, managing personnel is a whole other kettle of fish. Those good at operating a WRRF process, whether they are trained as an engineer or technologist, are not automatically skilled at personnel management. However, these two skill sets are not mutually exclusive. Those who have a true interest and can demonstrate skill at managing personnel, budgets, and administrative tasks should be given the opportunity to try it.

In my opinion, a WRRF manager must first be a successful operator before going on to a managerial position in wastewater treatment.

But we need to be able to track our best operators-technologists through a career without losing them to management, with its traditionally higher salaries and benefits. This can be done in large measure by providing comparable compensation to both managers and senior operators who have similar levels of experience, remain up-to-date in their skills, and show long-term continuity in high-quality process performance.

Setting requirements for the future

With the anticipated retirement of a large number of WRRF operators and the need to replace them during the next decade, the time is right to require that newly hired personnel meet technologist-level qualifications and to establish a Basis of Design working paradigm enabling new hires to truly operate their systems.

Academic training should include in-depth course work addressing the fundamentals of wastewater treatment, including but not limited to microbiology, chemistry, and hydraulics as they relate to wastewater treatment. Academic requirements also should include course work addressing the math and statistics of wastewater treatment, focusing on a facility’s design characteristics and process streams. Mathematics course work would thoroughly address a facility’s Basis of Design criteria. Course work must emphasize recordkeeping and report writing. Operators would be schooled and practiced in articulating formal reports, public presentations, and technical papers on any aspect of a facility’s operation.

New operators also need a fundamental practical working knowledge of wastewater treatment provided by on-site training to bring science-based academic learning into sharp relief. This can be provided by coordinated apprenticeship/academic training programs or a more conventional, postsecondary school community college academic programs with onsite, co-op working semesters at WRRFs.

Academic and onsite experience could be undertaken in coordination with reputable organizations that provide standardized certification for technologists. Technologist certification can and needs to be developed specifically for water and wastewater technologists.

In turn, financially compensating operator-technologists must reflect these considerable academic and work experience credentials, while also encouraging students to seek this field of work as a primary career and to encourage experienced operators to continue with their chosen work as a career path.

Comparing requirements to further define the role

The working conditions, in-house operating responsibilities, and management paradigm for operators may vary from one municipality to another regardless of a community’s rating for size and complexity. This offers a strong case for formally surveying operator working conditions and process characteristics across all regulatory jurisdictions. This would determine the current level of education and working paradigms found among operators. It also would provide a clear baseline identifying existing levels of academic and experience found in this profession along with insight into what is needed to build a cohort of operator-technologists.

Also, let us investigate establishing a Certified Engineering Technologist/Wastewater Treatment credential within organizations that certify technologists.

Technologist operators guard human health

A Feb. 16, 2012, edition of USA Today reported on the importance of water quality and wastewater treatment for human health. After reviewing 193 countries, a United Nations study by McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) found that when comparing access to adequate sanitation, the bottom quarter of the world had 6.6 more deaths for every 1000 children under the age of 5 compared to the top quarter. The United States ranked in the top quarter for sanitation.

This provides two basic but conflicting realities. If you live in a country in the bottom quarter, your chances of losing a child, which should never happen because of poor sanitation, is much greater. However, when the demands on WRRFs become greater, as volumes of wastewater and their complexity increase, risks to human health and the environment increase.

We owe a lot to operators who have worked the last 30 to 40 years to keep our wastewater effluents acceptable. But, continuing in the field requires new training to keep up with increasing demands in the workplace. To ensure we provide the best wastewater effluent component of our downstream neighbor’s water supply, we must raise the bar. As we deliver that life-saving service, we also will be better able to help those in the bottom quarter.

John Seldon, WEF Member

This is Seldon’s seventh column in a series exploring the future for water resource recovery facility technologist-operators. Other columns in the series include

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.