Great Jobs That Make A Difference - Wastewater Treatment Operators

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

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Have you even wondered where your used water goes?
When we ask most students this question, the usual response is “to pipes” but they have no idea where those pipes come from or go to. Students often get sewers confused with sources of drinking water. Some even think the ocean is a water supply for Arizona!

In all fairness, their answers are understandable. Few schools have the means or curricula necessary to delve deeply into the world of water infrastructure, so misconceptions are bound to occur.

Arizona Project WET’s primary goal is to support educators and students in understanding our State’s important water resources. We also support our municipal and private water provider partners by supporting them with some of their own objectives.

One looming concern for many water entities is the loss of skilled water treatment workers due to retiring “baby boomers” and a limited number of skilled recruits waiting to take their place. These water treatment jobs are essential to the health and safety of every community and they are great jobs.

Over the next few months, we plan to feature some water careers on our APW Blog to help get the word out about water careers.  This month, we’re focusing on Wastewater Treatment Operators.  Angela Lucci (AL) and Casey Espinoza (CE), both Wastewater Treatment Operators from the City of Surprise, were most gracious in helping us kick off this project by answering some interview questions.

APW: Why is wastewater treatment an important career?

AL: My job helps protect people and the environment by ensuring the city’s wastewater is compliant with clean water regulations. 

APW: Why did you decide to get into wastewater treatment as a career?

CE: I kind of fell into it.  My husband was working a job where he did water treatment, I was in school for healthcare and struggling to find a decent job.  I decided to try taking the certification exam and failed it.  However, that lead me to take some classes in water technology and I just fell in love.

APW: What type of education or training do you need to have to be a wastewater treatment operator?

CE: Most cities look for some kind of education or training in water or wastewater, or science, and state recognized certifications.

AL: A high school diploma or GED is required to become a wastewater treatment operator. Sometimes one year of water or wastewater utilities and/or laboratory-related experience is required.  At the city of Surprise, an Arizona Grade 1 Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator certification is required at the time of hire, and a valid Arizona Grade 1 Wastewater Collection System Operator certification is required within one year of hire.

APW: Is it easy to become a wastewater treatment operator?

AL: It has traditionally been very easy to become a wastewater treatment operator, and the utility industry is known to invest and mentor those who start at the entry level. Basic algebra skills are needed, and long-term on-the-job training is provided.

APW: Are their specific education programs you know about and can share with students?

CE: Gateway Community College offers a water technology degree as well as certificates in water or wastewater.  Rural water of Arizona offers operator certification classes as well.

AL: Gateway Community College in Phoenix offers a water/wastewater technology certificate program and an Associate in Applied Science Degree in Water Resource Technologies.

The city of Peoria, AZ, has a registered apprenticeship program in water/wastewater technologies. These are paid apprenticeship positions that provide 6,000 hours of training, 40 credit hours of college coursework, and paid-for certifications. More information can be found at

West-MEC (Western Maricopa Education Center) is a public-school district which provides career training programs for high school and adult students in Arizona. They are currently developing a water and wastewater program.

APW: How much do wastewater treatment operators get paid?

CE: Starting pay and range between $18-$23 an hour.

AL: Entry-level wastewater operators make about $19.50 per hour. Once promoted, senior wastewater operators make approximately $24 per hour, and lead wastewater operators make approximately $28 per hour. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of 2018, the average salary for water and wastewater treatment plant operators was $46,780 per year (or $22.48 per hour).

APW: What are the opportunities for advancement?

CE: Limitless within a city.

AL: There are various certifications that will allow you to advance to higher levels in this occupation, including the positions of senior operator, lead operator, supervisor, analyst, and manager. (For Example) I am not an operator, although I have a Grade 1 wastewater treatment certification. I oversee all regulatory matters related to the city’s wastewater facilities, including wastewater, reclaimed water, biosolids, air quality, hazardous materials, and operations. My job is interesting because I get to work with a variety of environmental organizations and programs, conduct research, investigate problems, and perform special projects. I also get to see some pretty cool wastewater stuff!

APW: Will there be a need for water treatment operators in the future?

CE: Yes, there are so many operators retiring or reaching retirement age, the need for new operators is great.  Many cities in the valley are also growing which will continue to increase the demand for operators.

AL: The operator career is a promising and stable field. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that in 2018 there were 127,100 water and wastewater treatment plant operators in the United States. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of water and wastewater treatment plant operators is projected to decline 5 percent from 2018 to 2028 due to more advanced automation of plant processes. However, there is an expected shortage of operators in the near future as the baby boomer generator retires, so more operators will be needed throughout the country.

APW: Final Thoughts. The great thing about water/wastewater treatment jobs is they are universal. Once you get certified, you can live in almost any city or town around the world and find employment. These jobs are good paying, stable jobs with great opportunities for advancement. You also don’t need to take on huge student loan debt or get a college degree to get certified as an operator.

To learn more about water or waste treatment certification here in Arizona, visit Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Operator Certification homepage.

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