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Firms managing multiple facilities can offer opportunities for cross-training in different plants, as well as opportunities to promote employees who demonstrate managerial capacity. Photo: Dean Abramson Photography
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Contract operations firm Woodard & Curran spends $60,000 to $100,000 annually on in-house training. A training and development program designed to make plant operations easier and more efficient for onsite staff reaches 100 to 125 employees annually. Photo: Woodard & Curran

The American Water Works Association estimates that half of all utility operators could retire in the next 10 years. With an insufficient number of replacements entering the field, utilities are poised to see a dangerous operator shortage.

Growing certification requirements and increasingly sophisticated and technology-driven processes and systems are making it tough for water and wastewater utilities to staff treatment plants with qualified personnel.

Even with a shrinking workforce, public utilities can successfully hire and retain the plant operations staff they require by turning to contract operations firms—also called operations and management firms—or by adopting these firms' techniques.

OUTSOURCE THE HEADACHES

One way to solve staffing problems is to enlist contract operations firms to do the work. These firms can hire and train employees, retool processes so less staff is needed, and even manage daily operations.

Frequent turnover and a shortage of qualified environmental professionals were two reasons the Charlton (Mass.) Water and Sewer Commission contracted Portland, Maine-based Woodard & Curran to operate and maintain its wastewater collection system, pumping stations, and treatment facility in 2006.

“We needed help in establishing much-needed operational protocols,” says Sandra Dam, chair of the Charlton Water & Sewer Commission.

The commission had only one operator when it hired Woodard & Curran. It is now a stable operation with three full-time staff members. The firm also implemented an operations and management training program that developed one of the plant's three full-time employees into a plant manager.

“That put a person in charge who knew the plant and processes thoroughly, and brought stability to the plant,” says Dam.

Claremont, N.C.'s two wastewater treatment facilities and five lift stations also had staffing challenges in 2006. The plants had no full-time operators. The city's public works personnel were providing 40 to 50 hours/week coverage to the facilities. The city turned to a contract operation firm, which brought one of its project managers from another facility to operate the system and then hired an additional part-time operator to provide assistance. The Claremont McLin plant has a capacity of 0.3 mgd and Claremont North is a 0.1-mgd facility. The contract operations firm fine-tuned plant operations to reduce the backlog of sludge, established a preventive maintenance schedule that keeps pumps and other equipment operating with maximum efficiency, and developed an aggressive approach to managing the processes. As a result, no public works personnel are required to operate the plant today.

WHEN IS OUTSOURCING THE RIGHT APPROACH?

You may want to consider outsourcing staffing and operations of your treatment system when one or more of the following factors occur, in order of importance:

Experienced personnel shortage. Whether the staff is inexperienced or there is a staffing shortage, the issue is the same: Qualified, knowledgeable operators are necessary to execute an effective operations plan. A state-of-the-art facility will only run as well as the individuals overseeing the process.

Repetitive compliance problems. This issue is often the byproduct of staffing shortages. It could also be the consequence of technical abnormalities, equipment failure, outdated treatment systems, or improper laboratory procedures and results. While technical assistance can often help alleviate this problem, long-term and sustained compliance is more likely to be achieved through contract operations.