There are a growing number of job opportunities for water technicians across the U.S. as the industry confronts a wave of retirements, yet community colleges find it challenging to attract enough students.
“There are definitely more people retiring in the field than people qualified for those jobs in Minnesota,” says instructor Gregg Kropp of St. Cloud Technical and Community College (SCTCC). The big wave of baby-boomer retirements predicted to start about 10 years ago was delayed due to the recession and is happening now, Kropp says.
“A ‘silver tide’ of requirements is drastically cutting into the pool of skilled, qualified workers in many utilities and resulting in staffing vacancies of up to 50 percent in some cases,” says a 2018 report by the Brookings Institution. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in water occupations to grow by 8 percent between 2016 and 2026.
Every municipality in Minnesota has job openings, yet it’s hard to get people into the college’s water environment technologies program, Kropp says. Part of that is because people don’t understand the water system.
“Nobody knows where water comes from. They just want it to be there when they turn on the faucet,” he says.
Also, people think a career involving sewage would be unpleasant.
“Everything is so digitized now, you don’t even come into contact with wastewater,” Kropp says. “Making wastewater clean is a lot more mentally stimulating than working with drinking water. It’s more complicated and more enjoyable.”
SCTCC offers one of only two water technology programs in Minnesota accredited by the state’s pollution control and health agencies. The program covers source water, making water potable, distribution to customers, wastewater treatment and discharge of wastewater back to the environment, along with everything water technology professionals need to know about the mechanics of pumps, motors and valves, laboratory techniques, and rules and regulations.
Students can earn an associate degree or a one-year diploma. Both credentials cover the same material on water technology – and prepare students for the state licensing exam – but the associate degree also includes general education courses.
Students in the SCTCC programs have a mandatory one-week internship at a water plant and a two-week internship as a wastewater intern. Kropp encourages them to seek additional internships on their own. Some of the paid internships are funded by Sourcewell, a nonprofit that supports rural development in central Minnesota, among other activities.
SCTCC has received donated lab equipment and old pipes for students to practice on, mostly from municipalities when they upgrade their water plants. Companies have also contributed funds for students to attend workshops and training sessions.
Most graduates get jobs with town or city governments. But as the rules on pollution control have become more stringent, Kropp sees more job opportunities in private industry. Some manufacturers have their own water plants and use a more expensive method of treatment called reverse osmosis to produce water with less mineral content than drinking water.
Food processing companies and breweries use reverse osmosis because minerals can affect flavor, Kropp explains, while industrial plating and circuit board manufacturers use that process to ensure there are no calcium, magnesium or other deposits on their products.
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