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
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

Financial trouble. The least important of the three factors, financial difficulties can often lead to lower quality and additional problems at a facility.

Profitable, growing contract operations companies are in a better position to offer operators growth and benefits opportunities than public or private utilities. Because these firms typically oversee multiple facilities, they can offer more cross-training opportunities in different plants. Having multiple facilities means more supervisory and managerial positions open in a given year for qualified employees willing to relocate to another plant. Being able to move employees around also means firms can better staff facilities.

Working with a contract operations firm is not the best approach for every facility. You should only use a contract operator if the firm provides “best value” for your utility. Best value is a combination of:

  • A well-thought-out operations plan, including a staffing strategy
  • A technical approach plus maintenance initiatives for the system
  • A technical support team of operations specialists and engineers
  • Capital planning (both short-and long-term)
  • Reasonable, affordable cost.

    If your utility can't outsource operations, you can still employ several tactics used by operations/management firms to boost recruiting of top, young employees:

    Provide plant tours to students. Show them the process firsthand and let them talk with operators and supervisors. Accentuate the positive aspects of a career that many outside the industry perceive to be dirty, smelly, routine, dead-end jobs. This includes opportunities for entry-level employment and subsequent promotions.

    Despite the perceived lack of glitz, “the secret that nobody is talking about is that working at a treatment plant is a great career that offers good, steady, and challenging work. You get the opportunity to help people by providing safe drinking water and protecting public health,” says California State University's Sacramento Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering Ken Kerri, Ph.D., PE.

    Offer internships. Reach out to high school and technical school students with internships at a treatment facility. This experience offers a valuable introduction to the water and wastewater industry.

    Utilize word of mouth. Networking through professional associations like the Water Environment Federation and regional groups like the New England Water Environment Association is the best way to identify prospective employees. Establish relationships with traditional and vocational-technical high schools, tech schools, and two-year community colleges. They are fertile recruiting grounds.

    Offer competitive pay. The utility field has been thought of, with some justification, as low-paying. But as technical demands increase and opportunities abound in information technology, entry-level salaries have been increasing from necessity. Graduates of good high schools, tech schools, and community colleges who have studied mechanics, electricity, plumbing, and chemistry are strong candidates and command top entry-level salaries. If they have familiarity with computers, electronics, and instruments as well, they are in the best position.