By Carol Carpenter

When there’s a job opening, every employer seeks to find and hire the most qualified person. Likewise, every prospective employee is looking for the best possible work situation. These aspirations are as true in the water industry as anyplace else.

Whether you’re a utility manager looking to hire a new water treatment operator, a facility manager of a commercial/industrial or institutional operation with water treatment systems, a dealer looking to hire a technician capable of operating a client’s water treatment facilities or an operator seeking a position, finding the right fit is important. Because finding that fit isn’t always easy to do, considering some essentials on both sides can improve everyone’s chances for success.

A candidate’s job skills are usually the first thing an employer will look at, which means every prospective employee—just starting out or experienced—should prepare a clear and concise résumé that highlights his or her education, experience and knowledge. Include on your résumé what operator treatment, distribution and wastewater certifications you hold. List your basic job skills; i.e., operate pumping and treatment equipment, read meters and gauges, have knowledge of state and federal drinking water regulations, or understand computerized supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. While résumés aren’t for providing every detail of one’s job experience—most details can be saved for the application and interview—they should include enough basic information to ensure the applicant’s background and skills elicit serious attention from the utility’s, facility’s or dealer’s human resources or management staff.

Do your homework
The qualifications or experience one water treatment plant manager might consider absolutely necessary for hiring purposes may not exactly match another plant’s requisites. Also, because requirements can vary from state to state, it’s a good idea to do some homework before filing an application. If possible, find out from the facilities operator of the plant or system in which you’re interested what credentials—such as specific work experience or certifications—are required as opposed to “nice but optional.”

James West, director of operations for the Portland (Maine) Water District, said he’s careful to check whether an applicant for an operator position has a background in preventive maintenance, preferably in water or wastewater. “There is a dearth of trained plant operators in this region, and we feel we can train a person with a maintenance background to be an effective operator,” he said, noting that someone’s instrumentation background and top-notch computer skills would be plusses.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) looks for candidates who have a variety of experience, can score high on a job-knowledge written exam, and interview well. The utility also seeks candidates who can handle the physical and mental demands of the job such as being able to lift heavy objects and analyze and solve problems. The district requires a job candidate possess the proper state certifications and a driver’s license.

Other utilities, such as the Stockton (Calif.) East Water District (SEWD), simply make sure an applicant is state certified as a treatment operator. Multiple certifications can be a bonus, but aren’t required for initial employment. While all utilities prefer a candidate with experience, sometimes they’ll hire someone with little or none. Richard Bermudez, SEWD’s treatment plant supervisor, said his utility has difficulty finding qualified individuals to fill vacancies. “Some experience is nice, but we will take the time to train individuals if we need to,” he said.

The interview
Once an applicant has been determined to be potentially employable based on his or her résumé, he or she is normally invited to the place of employment for a personal interview and, in some cases, to take a written skills test. This is the time for both the candidate and the employer to learn more about each other. Be honest about your credentials and schooling; because of heightened security concerns due to potential terrorism threats, background checks of potential employees are becoming routine.

At the interview, employers will want to know specifics about the candidate’s background and skills. Many employers say positive and elusive “people skills” are equally as important as knowing how to do the job. After all, no one wants to hire someone who can’t get along with others or who won’t pull his or her share of the load. Bermudez, for instance, wants someone who’s “dependable” while West seeks individuals who are “team players and self starters.” And Erin Beesley, who helps staff LVVWD’s Human Resources Department, said the utility seeks operators who’ll “emulate our organization’s cultural vision and values.”

The interviewee should ask questions, too. What shifts will he or she be expected to work? What about training? Are there opportunities for advancement? Savvy employers should be willing to tell a candidate about the pros and cons of shift work, how much training will be available, and whether there’s a good chance for future promotion.

Asking questions indicates an interest in an organization; job applicants can also position themselves better if, in advance of the interview, they know something about the utility they are applying to, i.e., the vision and values Beesley mentions. Much of this type of information can be found on a utility’s website or in water quality reports.

Training is important
Regarding training, most utilities are willing to put time and money into this effort, primarily because it’s the best way to ensure a properly trained staff. In some cases, utilities feel pressed to offer training because so few experienced and certified operators are looking for jobs.

Bermudez, whose Stockton utility employs six operators, said because the utility has found it difficult to find certified operators, it’s now seeking an entry level, relief operator and will offer an operator-in-training position this year. PWD, which employs eight operators, has an in-house training academy that provides basic water and wastewater operations, computer and management training. LVVWD, which has about 35 operators, provides 100 percent reimbursement for job-related classes operators take on their own time.

As for job advancement and promotions, operators can sometimes become lead or chief operators at water and wastewater plants, and some managers began their careers as operators. At other facilities, however, opportunities are limited and individuals may have to be willing to move to another utility, either in or out of state, to accomplish their goals. West said having multiple certifications is a big plus for operators who would like to move up in an organization. “Employees with multiple licenses have a broader range of operational knowledge and can provide valuable flexibility in emergency staffing situations,” he said.

Pay matters
Operator salaries can vary greatly from utility to utility, depending on size and location, employee experience and other variables. The American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) 2003 Salary Survey shows, for example, that entry level operators at a large utility (100,000 or more customers) can earn, on average, an annual salary between $29,000 and $41,000; those hired at a small utility (between 3,000 and 10,000 customers) can earn, on average, between $24,000 and $32,000. The average pay for entry level operators at mid-size utilities is somewhere between the two.

Average annual earnings for experienced operators at large utilities are between $33,000 and $46,000 while small utilities pay between $27,000 and $36,000 per year. Again, pay for experienced operators at mid-sized utilities is somewhere in the middle. Senior and lead operators are paid at higher levels in all categories. The top earnings for lead operators at a large utility can be as much as $54,000 per year while those at a small utility will usually top out at about $40,000.

Pay levels for wastewater treatment operators are a little, but not significantly, less in each category than for those working in drinking water treatment. Benefit packages can also vary from utility to utility; prospective employees need to check out the details of this information during the interview process or before accepting a job offer.

Conclusion
Regardless of whether the position is for water or wastewater treatment, being a plant operator is a rewarding career. But responsibilities for those pursuing it as well as those hiring them are high. And establishing the best professional standards is a two-way street between employer and employee to stay on the road to success.

About the author
Carol Carpenter is the associate editor of Opflow, a monthly newsletter of the American Water Works Association. Reprinted from Opflow, Vol. 29, No. 12 (December 2003), by permission. Copyright © 2003, American Water Works Association.

 

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