Water Career Spotlight - Water Treatment Operators

Jan. 26, 2022

Arizona Project WET’s primary goal is to support educators and students in understanding our State’s important water resources. In a 2011 poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, 77% of Americans (not on private wells) were unable to identify the source of their water. People in the Phoenix metropolitan area know that water is important, but don’t always know where their water comes from. The results are similar for Arizona students.

We also support our municipal and private water provider partners by assisting them with some of their own objectives. As mentioned last month, one looming concern for many water entities is the loss of skilled water treatment workers due to retiring “baby boomers” and a limited number of skilled recruits waiting to take their place. These water treatment jobs are essential to the health and safety of every community and they are great, stable jobs.

This month, we’re focusing on Water Treatment Operators.  Ryan Hime (RH) and Anthony Dudley (AD), both Water Treatment Operators from the City of Surprise, were most gracious in helping us continue our Water Careers project by answering some recent interview questions.

We plan to continue to feature additional water careers on our APW Blog to help get the word out about water careers. If you'd like to join the conversation, please reach out to Sandra Hurlbut at shurlbut@arizona.edu

APW: Why is water treatment an important career?
RH: Water is a necessity for life to exist which make the water career important globally. State and federal regulations have been established which governs how we treat water, so you are not held by state boundaries if you are looking to move away from Arizona. This one career where you can go anywhere in the world and find a job treating water.

AD: We hear every day about all the pollutants entering our water supply. A career in water treatment makes sure that these pollutants don’t make it out to the public or at least stay under the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA.  Public safety is our number one concern in water treatment!

APW: Why did you decide to get into water treatment as a career?
RH: I began my career in the Air Force shortly after I graduated from high school and I really didn’t know anything about water treatment.  In the Air Force, my job title was “Environmental Support Specialist”, which covered water and wastewater treatment. I was sent to technical school to learn about the career and there I saw how easily it would be for me to transfer from the military back to the civilian job sector.

AD: Five years ago I was working as a pharmacy tech but wasn’t really enjoying that line of work. I considered it a job rather than a career. I didn’t realize the (water treatment) profession existed until one day my buddy mentioned it to me.  After that, I did some more research and found out the positive impact (this profession) has on communities. I felt that water treatment was something I could excel in because I had a background in microbiology and chemistry.

APW: Is it easy to become a water treatment operator?
RH: If you desire to become a water treatment operator, all you have to do is sign-up with a local community college or technical school which offers the courses.

AD: I wouldn’t say it’s “easy” but definitely obtainable if you are willing to put in the time to study and learn the material to pass your certifications.  It can be difficult to find a position in this industry, but my suggestion would be to find a municipality (city) and see if they offer a volunteer program or possibly a paid internship.  You may not get the position you want at first but if you can get your foot in the door and get some experience, you’ll be able to work your way into the position you want.

APW: What type of education or training do you need to have to be a water treatment operator?
RH: A high school diploma, technical training or volunteer as an intern to gain the experience you need to prepare you for the certification exams. We (the city of Surprise) hire 6 interns per year for an 8-week period which allows each intern to gain the hands-on experience.

AD: I’m only familiar with the Gateway Community College (GCC) water program.  I have showed multiple interns from their (GCC) program our water system, so that is one way to get education/training.  If you’re a self-starter and want to learn the material on your own, then I would recommend the Sacramento series (Water Treatment Plant Operation, A Field Study Training Program).  It has a lot of great information that will take you all the way through your Water Treatment Operator - Grade 3.

APW: Are their specific education programs you know about and can share with students?
RH: You can sign-up with Sacramento State Water Programs which offers distance learning. Click on the link https://www.owp.csus.edu/courses/catalog.php to learn more about their program. Gateway Community College https://www.gatewaycc.edu/water-technology and West-Mec https://west-mec.edu/environmental-sustainability/

APW: What do you enjoy about being a water treatment operator?
RH: I enjoy finding ways to improve the system and making tasks better for the operators. I always look for ways to improve the process and make tasks more efficient which normally leads to a reduction in man-hours and cost savings. Once you become efficient in one area, you can begin to focus on other areas of improvement.

AD: Water is essential to our daily lives, so I enjoy the feeling of providing clean, safe drinking water to my community.  I enjoy the challenges we face in this industry and coming up with collaborative solutions. I enjoy the team I work with to make our operations as efficient as possible.  I also feel that this industry is stable. During these crazy times with people being laid off or furloughed, we are still essential and need to keep providing safe drinking water to the public.

APW: What are the opportunities for advancement?
RH: With the community growth, many agencies are hiring personnel to keep pace with the demand. Also, the passing of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 will create jobs and opportunities on the operations and maintenance side.

AD: There are plenty of opportunities in this field. It all just depends on how far you want to go.  For example, you could start as a water meter reader and work your way through the ranks of operator, supervisor, manager, director, and so on. You could move out of water operations and go to water distribution, maintenance, or the environmental side of water. The are many options to grow in this field and they will be there in the future.

APW:  How much do water treatment operators get paid?
RH: There is large range from an Operator I to a director. The average water operator starts off at approximately $20.00/hour and water directors are commonly over $100K/year.

AD: The salaries vary depending on what type of system you operate. Smaller systems may be on the lower side and the larger systems are on the higher side.  Experience and time spent on the systems also play a factor. I would say the pay range that I’ve seen for water operators has been $35k-$70K yearly.

APW: Will there be a need for water treatment operators in the future?
RH: There will always be a need for water treatment operators. Even though automation has played a huge part of our industry, there are many areas where instrumentation, computers, electronic s cannot replace operators.

AD: Future water operators will be in need. Water quality is going to be an ongoing challenge as our society grows and they will need operators to make sure those water standards are met.

APW:  Other thoughts?
RH: I tell people all the time that they pay us for when things go wrong. We need to be ready and able to keep the integrity of the system intact and in compliance at all times. There will be times when you will have to work overtime and be on-call, but this will build your experience. The water career is a recession proof job because we will always need water to cook, clean, bathe, irrigate and to flush toilets.

AD: This is a very rewarding career and I highly recommend anyone interested to check it out. I’d be happy to offer any further assistance to anyone interested! 

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