Rural Water Association Looking For New Operators
Many of West Virginia’s water and wastewater operators are expected to retire in the next few years, according to the Brookings Institute and a report from the Water Research Foundation called the Water Sector Workforce Sustainability Initiative.
Todd Grinstead, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association, says his organization is working to help raise awareness about career opportunities in the industry.
“We recognize that a lot of young folks coming out of high school don't really understand what a water operator does, or wastewater operator does,” Grinstead said. “They don't realize there’s sciences, biology, there's technology, there's electronics, all this is in stuff that they're interested in, they just don't realize.”
Grinstead and other staff at his association are planning to spend time at job fairs, vocational centers, and high schools to showcase job opportunities and a new apprenticeship program.
The program formalizes the process to reach certification status. A certified water or wastewater operator must complete about 4,000 hours, or two years, on the job and pass a certification test. The National Rural Water Association has developed an apprentice program to help states across the country meet these requirements in a structured, formal way.
While trainees in the state still need to complete hours on the job, the RWA apprenticeship program creates specific areas of experience to ensure all important areas are covered in a logical order.
“Once an apprentice gets started with a system, there is a mentor assigned to that person. It's usually a chief operator or somebody who has a lot of years and a lot of knowledge at the water system or the wastewater system that actually will mentor this new person,” Grinstead said.
West Virginia recently changed the state RWA program to include online applications. Grinstead expects the newly approved apprenticeship will help young people enter the workforce.
“The apprenticeship program will allow an employee that's already employed at a system to go ahead and start the program to become a certified operator,” Grinstead said. “This also allows somebody that doesn't even have a job in the industry, they can apply.”
The new trainees are important. Some communities in West Virginia don’t have certified operators at all.
“Some of these systems, they don't even have somebody that can be a mentor to teach them that system,” Grinstead said. “So that's a problem. I'm not sure how we can get past that.
“The money has to come from somewhere to be able to pay these folks. I don't know what the magic answer for that is. But it does happen,” he added. “And it's our desire to add more operators to the field. And hopefully there'll be enough eventually to get moved around and these smaller systems can hire somebody that's certified that can do the job and do it correctly and those safely.”
The National Rural Water Association funds the project by paying the salary and benefits of the workforce development administrator as well as material for promotion.