1.3: Career Opportunities In the Water Industry
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Finding a job is dependent on a number of factors. Timing, current economic conditions, work skills, and more all play a part in trying to land a job. However, with a little bit of discipline and effort, finding a job is not too difficult. Although finding a “job” might not be too difficult, finding a career can be. What is the difference between a “job” and a “career”? A “job” for discussion purposes in this chapter is a place of employment that may or may not be full-time and will probably not lead to multiple years of employment in the same industry. That is not to say that someone cannot turn a “job” into a successful long lasting place of employment. It is just to distinguish between some place to work and a career in a specific industry. In this chapter, a career refers to a place of employment in a similar industry for many years—a career in the “water” industry.
There are some industries that will flourish at times and then feel the downward effects of a slowing economy. For example, a career in the aerospace industry usually reaps the benefits from defense contracts but can also see a significant hit when the government decides to implement cuts in the defense budget. Although the “Tech” industry saw tremendous financial gains during the “dot com” boom of the late 1990s, there was a hit to that industry after the turn of the century. In addition, when the housing market crashed in 2008, many home builders and the construction industry saw profits plummet along with high levels of unemployment. All of these examples can be profitable and long lasting careers but they are also susceptible to economic uncertainty.
Water and wastewater industries are a little different. This is not to say there are never layoffs or periods of economic challenges in these industries. However, people will always need a safe and reliable supply of drinking water and people will always create wastewater. Therefore, water utilities in general are very sustainable and recession proof industries. The water and wastewater industries will be referred to collectively as “water industry” throughout the text. Within each industry, there are multiple layers of careers from office functions to field construction workers. Some of these positions require specific job training and expertise while others might only require a high school diploma. The careers discussed in this text will fall under water distribution, water treatment, and wastewater treatment. Within each of these industries, distribution and treatment operators will be the main focus.
A general understanding of distribution and treatment should be explained first. Water that is delivered to millions of people throughout the United States is transported through an array of aqueducts, storage reservoirs, large and small diameter pipes, treatment plants, pumps, valves, meters, and various appurtenances before it arrives at the customer’s faucet. In California, most of the water treated for domestic use moves through the State Water Project, Los Angeles Aqueduct, or the Colorado River Aqueduct. These large water conveyance systems are owned and operated by a variety of state and local agencies. For example, the State Water Project (SWP) is managed by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). DWR manages the movement of water from an area just north of Sacramento down into Southern California. They employ hundreds of people who have the responsibility of delivering water to SWP contractors. There are twenty-seven member agencies including the local Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency and Metropolitan Water District. Much of the water we use for domestic purposes requires some type of treatment. There are dozens of treatment plants throughout the state and thousands throughout the country. These treatment plants rely on a network of sophisticated treatment process to provide safe and reliable drinking water to millions of people. Operating these treatment plants require highly trained and certified treatment operators, engineers, maintenance workers, managers, and office staff to keep the treatment process running effectively and efficiently. Once treated water leaves a treatment plant, it must move through a network of pipes, pumps, storage structures, and appurtenances before it reaches each customer. This is where water distribution systems step in. Water distributors are typically referred to as water purveyors or water retailers. A water purveyor might have as few as a couple employees or as many as hundreds to thousands. Field distribution operators are trained professionals and are required to be certified. Once the water has been used by customers, it ends up in either a storm drain, which predominately is left untreated as it makes its way to the ocean, or it ends up in a sanitary sewer system and is treated through a Water Reclamation Plant (WRP), Publically Owned Treatment Works (POTW), or a Wastewater Treatment Plant (WTP). WTP will be used in this text to collectively refer to all wastewater (sewer) treatment facilities. For all practical purposes, these are all similar facilities where wastewater (sewer water) is treated before being discharged. In addition, WTPs will have a network of piping leaving home and businesses to the WTP.
Water Industry Careers
Water industry employees are responsible to provide customers with safe and reliable drinking water and to safely treat wastewater to further protect human life and the environment. Safe water means it must comply with both state and federal drinking water regulations (discussed later in this text). Reliable water means that when a customer turns on their faucet water flows out. People tend to take things like electricity and water for granted. We flip a switch and the light goes on. We turn a faucet and water comes out. It is not until these resources are interrupted people get concerned and sometimes upset.
There are hundreds of drinking water treatment plants throughout the U.S. These treatment plants have the responsibility to treat surface water to certain standards making it safe for human consumption. There are a variety of highly skilled positions within a treatment plant and staff responsibilities can range from operator to laboratory technician, from administrative assistant to water resource engineer.
The distribution of water is an unseen necessity by millions of people throughout the world. There are over 18 billion miles of distribution piping throughout the U.S and over 50,000 community water systems. All of these drinking water systems require people to operate and run them. There are thousands of employment opportunities available throughout the U.S. However, operating a distribution system is a complex operation requiring trained personnel in a variety of job functions. Water purveyors can have different sources of supply including surface water, purchased water, groundwater, and recycled water. They can have few customers or thousands, a handful of employees or hundreds, but all of them will have similar functions.
Making sure wastewater is properly treated is important for human and animal safety as well as for protecting the environment. WTP operators are responsible for making sure sewer flows coming into the plant are adequate for treatment purposes and must respond to any and all releases should they occur. Solids that are removed during the wastewater treatment process must also be properly handled and disposed.
Although there are many unique and specialized job functions within a utility that require certification, there are also a number of “common” job opportunities as well. Most utilities will have staff positions that are similar to many other industries such as customer service, office management, accounting, etc. While some of the terminology might be different, many of these jobs will not require specific water related training.
The previous paragraphs briefly introduced the areas of drinking water distribution and treatment and wastewater treatment. The remaining pages of this chapter will look at specific career opportunities in the water industry and how someone should go about applying for these jobs.
The Office Staff
Most offices are staffed with accounting, financial, human resource, billing, and customer service departments. Depending on the size of the organization these departments can be interrelated while other times there can be a number of employees staffing each department. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for example staffs over 8,500 employees serving a total population of greater than one million. Approximately half of this staff is responsible for the water side while the other half is responsible for the electric side of the utility. Although there might be some overlap between the human resource and administration functions, there will still be staff that provide office and field related services to their respective areas. Typically, in larger organizations there will be multiple employees in each department providing specific support needs and functions. While in smaller organizations, certain functions might be covered by the same staff person. For example, sometimes billing and customer service functions might fall under a Customer Service Department and financial, accounting, and human resources might be under an umbrella such as an Administration Department. Regardless of department titles, all utilities must provide similar services, such as creating and mailing water bills, collecting money from customers, answering phone calls, responding to customer questions and complaints, ordering supplies, paying bills, providing salaries and services to employees as well as other vital job tasks. Although some operational staff spend much of their time in the office, we will consider them “operational” employees and list them under “Field Staff.” For the purpose of this text let’s look at a smaller sized utility as an example. Below is an organizational chart for the office staff of fictitious XYZ Water Department:
The above chart represents a medium sized water utility with eleven (11) office employees. Remember, this is just an example and may not reflect what an agency looks like exactly. Some utilities are very large and have hundreds of employees and are usually separated into multiple departments, while other utilities can be quite small and one employee might perform multiple jobs/tasks. Let’s analyze the above example and discuss what some of the general functions might look like for each position and department. The next several paragraphs are some typical examples of what each job might entail. Remember, these are just examples to get you familiar with the industry as a whole and may not represent a specific job that you can apply for in the future.
- General Manager – The General Manager (GM) is typically the position at the top of a water utility organization. However, in a privately (investor) owned utility, the title of the person at the top of the organizational chart would be referred to as the President. Regardless of the exact title, a President and General Manager have similar job functions. The GM oversees the daily operations of the entire organization. This oversight is not usually direct, which means that the GM does not typically discuss day-to-day operations with the staff on a daily basis. They might get updates through meetings or from managers. Although they may not be involved in the day-to-day operations, they are ultimately responsible for all aspects of the utility. In public agencies, they usually report to a governing board of directors, city council, water commission or some other entity that is either elected or appointed. In private (investor owned) water utilities, they would report to shareholders, which would be equivalent to a board of directors. The primary responsibility of a General Manager is to manage upper level staff, sources of water supply, budgeting, provide support to staff, and create meaningful and efficient policies for the governing body to review and adopt. General Managers are usually contracted employees and are hired by the governing boards whereas Presidents are typically hired employees and do not have any guaranteed contract. Education and background for people seeking a GM type of position would be in the areas of engineering, science, and public administration. Sometimes a General Manager will also serve as the “Chief Engineer” of an agency. They may also have an advanced degree in a science-related field. Regardless of their background and education, this position would have similar responsibilities in all three (3) types of water related industries
- Administration, Finance, and Human Resource Manager - This position can have various titles, but the function is to manage and oversee the day-to-day operations within the office. In a private utility, this position is typically referred to as a Vice President. They usually have multiple direct reports and in smaller utilities it might be one (1) person handling all human resource related tasks as well as administration and financial related responsibilities. Typical functions include preparing documents such as policy, safety, emergency response, and employee manuals. These types of managers keep the office organized and running efficiently. In larger organizations there may be separate positions for Administration, Finance, and Human Resource responsibilities with a staff reporting to each manager. These types of positions typically require a degree in business and or public administration.
- Customer Service Managers and Departments - Customer Service staffs are the “face” of the organization. They deal directly with the public on a daily basis. They make sure that water meter reads are accurate and input correctly into the billing system. They issue water bills, accept payments, send reminders to late paying customers, and handle any issue a customer has when they call or come into the office. Many interactions with customers are related to complaints of incorrect billings, high usage, and other customer account related inquiries. However, other times customers will call to complain about operational problems such as leaks, low pressure, no water, poor quality, etc. Sometimes, customer service staff can resolve these types of complaints by asking a few questions and responding the customer’s concern. Other times, work orders are generated and forwarded on to the appropriate operations department. As with most managerial positions, a degree is usually required. However, sometimes organizations will promote long time employees that have shown a dedication to the agency and a willingness and ability to learn on the job.
- Accounting Managers and Departments - The flow of money moves through accounting departments. The primary revenue source for most water utilities is through water usage payments. However, some utilities collect taxes, rents, and various other sources of revenue. Just as money comes into a utility it goes out as well. Salaries, benefits, insurance are some of the more costly expenses that utilities must balance. In addition, office supplies are purchased and an inventory of parts and materials are maintained so operational staff can make repairs and replacements as they present themselves. Consulting is also a large part of a utilities expense. Engineering consultants, attorneys, and specialized contractors are all a part of a utilities operation. Every utility has a warehouse to store and maintain a variety of inventory items. Although operational staffs are using the material in inventory, it is the responsibility of the accounting department to reconcile the “ins and outs” of each item and the associated costs. Typically accounting managers will be Certified Public Accounts (CPA) and have a business-related degree.
Typically, all of the above mentioned managers and departments will have support staff. The support staff will process paperwork, deal directly with customers, and provide a variety of support related responsibilities. These employees will need to be proficient with computers and be able to write memos, input data into spreadsheets, and use specialized software to handle billing, inventory, purchasing orders, and other various tasks. Many of these positions are entry level and will not require a degree.
The Field Staff
Every utility has a staff that predominately works in the office and a staff that occupies most of their time outside (or in the “field”). As explained earlier in this text some of the operational managers and supervisors spend most of their time in the office, but will be discussed as “field staff” in this text. Field staff and operational duties range from reading meters, fixing leaks, collecting water samples, installing services and pipelines to responding to complaints, maintaining facilities and appurtenances. Many utilities are separated into several departments such as Maintenance, Construction, Water Quality, and Customer Service while others might divide departments even further. For instance there might be a department for valve operators, leak repairs, electricians, etc. Regardless of the structure of a utilities operation, they all have the same basic functions of getting water from the source to the customer in a reliable and safe manner. Below is a generic organizational chart for a medium sized utility:
In this example, there would be crews under each Supervisor/Superintendent. Sometimes the Superintendent is a step up and oversees the various departments. Crews can be large or small. For instance, construction and maintenance crews tend to be larger than water quality technicians, primarily because there are more construction and maintenance related activities compared to collecting water quality samples. Let’s take a look at common tasks and responsibilities of the various operation positions.
- General Manager - As previously mentioned, the GM (and President) is responsible for the entire organization. In addition to the various administrative and personnel related functions, a GM quite often gets involved in planning and design of the vast array of different facilities. Many times a GM will have an engineering degree, water quality experience, or some science and business related background.
- Operations Manager - This position is responsible for the overall day-to-day operations of a utility. Although Operations Managers spend most of their time in an office, they meet regularly with the various operations supervisor getting updated and briefed on daily activities. An operation manager will typically be responsible for the operations budget and tracks expenses incurred for various construction and maintenance related projects. Many times an operations manager and GM work closely together to strategically plan system improvement projects and future development. This type of position is typically the equivalent to the Vice President position of a private utility. Most Operations Managers will have some type of four (4) year degree in engineering, science, or sometimes business.
- Superintendent - Superintendents are usually the eyes and ears of all field activities. They are typically field-based employees that spend some of their time in an office behind a desk. They coordinate and communicate most of the day-to-day activities and assist the various departments including, but not limited to construction, maintenance, water quality, and field customer service. Typically the Superintendent has many years of experience in the field as an operator or some other field position and works their way up to this position. Usually this position would not require a four (4) year college degree. However, there would be certification requirements and more than likely a D5 certification would be required.
- Construction – Not every utility will have a construction crew(s). Sometimes this type of work is contracted out to independent private construction companies. Either way, construction can be a large part of the responsibilities for water utilities. Construction activities range from the installation of water mains and services to the repair of leaks. Crews may build facilities such as pump stations and they may provide services for new infrastructure installation and capital improvement replacements. A supervisor or foreman typically leads this group and there usually is at least one heavy equipment operator. There are also certification requirements for positions within construction departments, including the required Division of Drinking Water (DDW) certifications and Class A licenses for heavy equipment operators. Typically very little experience is required for entry level construction jobs. However, positions within construction departments can be the most demanding physically and can often require employees to work nights and weekends.
- Maintenance – In addition to the installation and repair of facilities and appurtenances, maintenance of the systems is an important part of every utility. Pumps and motors need routine inspection and adjustments. Valves need to be routinely operated. Fire hydrants need to be flushed and painted periodically. There are also many different types of routine maintenance of buildings and the property facilities are built on. Just as you might maintain a car or a home, water facilities and structures need to be maintained. Typically there is a supervisor for maintenance crews. The supervisor would be the person in charge of scheduling and assigning the maintenance work. There might be various types of schedules with varying frequency. For example, valves might be on an annual schedule and motors and pumps might be on a semi-annual schedule. Regardless of the schedule, all maintenance activities should be well documented and tracked.
- Water Quality – All water utilities will have some type of water quality department. In small organizations it might be one person who handles these responsibilities. In larger utilities, there might be a department with multiple crews. There are minimum sampling, monitoring, and reporting requirements all utilities must abide by. A water quality specialist or technician is usually responsible for these duties. Sometimes agencies will have field technicians and an office water quality position. While other times field and office duties will be the responsibility of the same person or group of people. For example, a technician might be the person collecting the samples and a specialist might be the person preparing the sample bottles, interpreting the sample results, and preparing the reports. Regardless who is responsible for what task, a water quality professional will need to be a certified operator and sometimes will need a science-related degree.
- Engineering and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) - There are many engineers in the water industry. Treatment plants, pumping facilities, storage tanks, and many other types of facilities need to be designed and constructed. On-staff engineers or hired engineering consultants are the ones responsible for designing and mapping the systems. After a facility, piping infrastructure, or some part of a system is designed and constructed there are “mark-up” plans that come back to the engineering departments. These plans are called “as-built” drawings. They are drawings “as they were built”. Sometimes the construction crew will make field modifications for various reasons. They will then create as-built drawings so the engineers can update their plans and provide the staff will accurate complete drawings. Many utilities employ GIS personnel. GIS is another mapping function and includes facility data and information in a geographic database. For example, pipelines have information associated with them such as, diameter, length, material, installation date, etc. This data can be geographically coded with the pipe and retrieved at the click of a button. Often times field operators will have “paper” maps with minimal information written on them. Sometimes they will need to return to the office or contact someone to retrieve detailed information. Technology is now allowing field crews to carry tablets or laptops in the field enabling them to access GIS data immediately. Engineering and GIS employees will almost always require a four (4) year degree and quite often advanced degrees and special licenses and certifications.
These examples are by no means an exhaustive list of career paths and job opportunities in the water industry. Utilities are unique in size and in their hiring processes. As mentioned above, each department can have few or many employees. For example, there might be a Water Quality Manager with three (3) Water Quality Supervisors each having several Water Quality Technicians reporting to them. In very small utilities one person might make up the entire department. The size of the utility will have an effect on the hiring process and the employment opportunity potential. Large public utilities can have hundreds of people applying for one position and typically have a test that all the applicants must complete. This “test” is used to screen out individuals and quite often only the top few scores are called back for an interview. Sometimes you will be interviewing in front of a panel of people, while in small private agencies it might be a one-on-one interview. Regardless of the process a worthy applicant needs to be well prepared. Taking water related coursework, becoming certified operators, and gaining experience will all help to increase the opportunity for gaining employment. Stay focused, work hard, and don’t become discouraged. Landing a job that turns into a career in the water industry is a real possibility and very rewarding.