Solutions for Municipal Water & Wastewater Operator Shortage
Many communities in the country are currently experiencing a shortage of water and wastewater treatment plant operators, which is placing an immense burden on municipalities. The lack of qualified personnel is jeopardizing the provision of essential public health services. Fortunately, Snyder & Associates is ready to offer plant operational support. Our team comprises licensed operators who can deliver a completely managed program or a part-time/temporary solution, depending on your community’s needs. In this podcast, Lindsay Beaman, P.E., a Grade 2 certified Wastewater Operator, and Jarad Diedrich, a Grade 3 Wastewater and Grade 1 Water Operator, discuss the staffing and expertise solutions that our team can provide.
- Roles & Responsibilities of Certified Operators (01:42)
- Operator Workforce Shortage Raises Concerns for Public Health & Safety (03:10)
- Risks Associated with Operator Shortages (06:38)
- Snyder & Associates Offers a Full Range of Operations Staffing Services (07:42)
- Advantages to Municipalities in Hiring a Licensed Operator (10:44)
Solutions and Support for the Water and Wastewater Operator Shortage Podcast
Lindsay Beaman (00:17):
Hi, I’m Lindsay Beaman with Snyder & Associates in our Cedar Rapids location. Today I’m speaking with Jarad Diedrich about wastewater and water-certified operators within the state of Iowa. Jarad, can you introduce yourself and provide a little bit of background on your experience in this industry?
Jarad Diedrich (00:34):
Yes, thanks for having me today. I’m Jarad Diedrich, and I’ve been in the water and wastewater industry for about 15 years now. I started as an industrial operator, so I have industrial experience at a wastewater facility, and then I was hired on to operate a wastewater facility for a municipal plant. I did that for a few years and then ended up getting the opportunity to work for Snyder and was hired on to do some operational stuff as well as construction ops, where I’m working within the projects that are needed for these municipalities.
Lindsay Beaman (01:08):
From my experience working with water and wastewater treatment projects, I know that all the municipalities in Iowa require certified operators to operate and work at their plants. The grades of water and wastewater certified operators range from one to four, depending on a combination of treatment plants, types, sizes, and maybe the flows of water or wastewater treated. And the operators at these publicly owned treatment works are required to hold a certification classification higher than or equal to the plant for which they operate.
Roles & Responsibilities of Certified Operators
Jarad, you have water and wastewater treatment grades. Can you tell me what certifications you hold and kind of what the day-to-day activities of a certified operator would be?
Jarad Diedrich (01:49):
Yeah, so I have a Grade 3 Wastewater Operator certification, a Grade 1 Water, and a Grade 1 Distribution. A few of the things that operators do on a day-to-day basis are kind of wide-ranging, lots of logs and reports that they would accumulate and any kind of maintenance on equipment that is needed to operate the plant properly. They’re also in charge of distribution systems on the waterside and collection systems on the wastewater side. Any additional monitoring, and then there’s also lab work that they potentially could be doing depending on the plant and the DNR requirements.
I do have a quick question for you, Lindsay. I know that you are a certified engineer, but you are also a Certified Operator. Do you find that beneficial for the work that you do?
Lindsay Beaman (02:33):
Yeah, I do. I have my Grade 2 Wastewater license, and it’s been more of a practice in understanding the community I serve than practicing as an operator. It doesn’t seem fair to me to be someone who can direct some of the projects that are going to be taken care of by these operators without having a better understanding of the requirements of their roles. So, I’ve been a pretty big advocate of trying to get licensure and understand that especially with some of the industry demands and the shortfall of staff that we’re going to talk about here later. To better understand operators’ requirements so that my jobs can better fulfill the needs of their roles.
Operator Workforce Shortage Raises Concerns for Public Health & Safety
One of the biggest conversations in the industry is that there seems to be a shortfall in the pending future backfill in these careers. What do you believe is causing some of the shortfalls?
Jarad Diedrich (03:22):
I think the overall amount of water and wastewater operators are on the lower end due to the aging population, so there’s a large volume of operators that will be getting ready to retire. And the amount of people that are aware and educated on this industry has dwindled, just like all the rest of the trades, over the last multiple years. So, it would be beneficial to do some more educational stuff earlier in high school and college education. And I know some programs push that route, but I think that, in general, a lot of the public doesn’t realize that it is a potential career path.
Lindsay Beaman (04:00):
At Snyder & Associates, you are serving as a certified operator. How are you filling some of these gaps?
Jarad Diedrich (04:06):
A lot of what we looked at when I was brought on was the need for operators and the ability to service smaller communities, which typically have the most difficult time backfilling operators, and either fill in and operate for these facilities until they can find somebody and get them up to the training or certifications that they need, or being able to go out and assist other operators with any issues that plants are having.
Lindsay Beaman (04:31):
Yeah. Jarad, you talked about being able to work for places that don’t necessarily need a full-time operator. Maybe that’s part of the challenge in staffing is when you don’t need a full-time utilization of one employee. Getting contract services might be a better solution.
Jarad Diedrich (04:45):
Yeah, that is an important thing to bring up because some communities don’t need full-time employees. And then some communities have full-time staff that is trying to run multiple facilities and take care of other needs of the community, whether that be streets, buildings, and facilities that need to be taken care of as well. When operators need additional hands, we are there to assist and help with anything that they would need to take the burden off their shoulders a little bit.
Lindsay Beaman (05:08):
It’s also not a quick job to backfill. As we talked about, the path to becoming a certified operator takes what, years of experience? How long did it take you to get to a certain point?
Jarad Diedrich (05:19):
There are several different routes to go. You can go the experience route, which would just need a high school diploma or a GED, but it would take a lot longer because the certification requirements are based on how much experience you have. If you pair that with education, you can cut down on the amount of time it takes.
Jarad Diedrich (05:35):
Do you think that the education system and views of trade schools overall have impacted this industry?
Lindsay Beaman (05:40):
That’s a really good question. I think, yes, that over the past, I don’t know, decades that the big decline in industrial trades has impacted this industry, but I think it’s also on the rebound. It’s behind where it could be, but I believe that there’s been a lot better push from community colleges to promote the local trades. And obviously, that supply chain needs to get down to the actual employment market. That’s really what drives these jobs, and it might turn itself around, but it takes, it takes time and takes conversations, and it takes getting people in the job market to understand the roles they could play. Like, like you’ve said, to become environmental stewards to your community to understand and backfill these positions.
Jarad Diedrich (06:20):
Right. And it does take some time to get training programs up to where they need to be getting apprenticeships or other opportunities in that light to push this industry forward with highly certified or qualified individuals.
Lindsay Beaman (06:33):
So, we talked about a shortage of certified operators within the public. Who’s at the biggest risk of this shortage?
Risks Associated with Operator Shortages
Jarad Diedrich (06:38):
Typically, it’s much more difficult for the smaller communities to fill and backfill potential openings that come along. Smaller communities have a harder time because those are the facilities that don’t need full-time employees to operate, or they have many different things that they need to be doing within the community. So, it’s not just operating. They may need some help with taking care of their facilities or not wanting to overstaff. That is unneeded when they can just outsource it or contract it out. And a lot of communities have gone that route recently.
Lindsay Beaman (07:08):
If a community doesn’t have a certified operator, what’s the biggest risk?
Jarad Diedrich (07:12):
It’s probably putting human health and safety at risk by not having an onsite operator monitoring operations. That could be detrimental to the environment and to the people of that community. When we’re operating facilities, essentially, we have the whole community’s trust in our hands. When you turn on your tap water, we make sure that the drinking water is the best quality that it should be and meets all requirements. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a lot that goes into getting that good, clean tap water to your communities.
Snyder & Associates Offers a Full Range of Operations Staffing Solutions
Lindsay Beaman (07:42):
I know that one of my favorite roles that you fill at Snyder & Associates is helping to oversee some construction of major facilities, whether that be water, wastewater treatment, lift stations, et cetera. Sometimes it will feel like the project is completed when construction is completed, and we all know that these projects have a life that goes on forever. Oftentimes that is in the form of assisting an operator or troubleshooting things, and I really would like to hear more about what you can provide for like post-construction services.
Jarad Diedrich (08:14):
Once the construction’s completed and the plant is up and operational, there are always things that are going to come up that you either weren’t expecting to happen or just aren’t working properly. With the experience of operating multiple different types of plants and the ability to troubleshoot, we can be on-site as needed and help to figure out the best route and see if any changes need to be made. That’s another thing that happens when the plans are being built. I will be assisting with going through to make sure that there’s nothing obvious before we install it to try to limit the number of changes that need to be made to make it more operational-friendly before we install.
Completely Managed Operations Program
Lindsay Beaman (08:54):
Jarad, you talked about how sometimes the operators that work at these plants are also performing duties throughout the city, and maybe sometimes they are stretched thin. Can you talk more about ways that we can help, maybe backfill some of their responsibilities?
Jarad Diedrich (09:06):
There are a lot of different opportunities. If operators have a lot on their plate and they’re trying to manage multiple different things, there are ways that we can help alleviate that either by performing services for them operationally, whether that be help lining up lab work for them, being on-site to help with maintenance if they would need that or to set up a maintenance program so that they can have their time lined up better with the other parts of their job that they have to do. So, here are some of the things that we can do to help assist these operators that just need a little help, to get some of this stuff done but would benefit from a program of some sort.
Lindsay Beaman (09:41):
I like that. It sounds like we can help anywhere from 1% to 100% just based on the needs of a specific process or community.
Jarad Diedrich (09:50):
Yep, and every community is going to be a little bit different depending on its resources and the number of employees that they have available.
Short-Term & Temporary Operations Staffing Services
Lindsay Beaman (06:56):
I know from my experiences that there are several communities that possibly just need to advance an operator from maybe a Grade 2 to a Grade 3, and that is something that takes a couple of years of experience under another certified operator. Would that be something else that we could offer?
Jarad Diedrich (10:14):
Yes, that’s something else we could offer. We would come in and be the operator in charge, do a lot of the documents and the DNR reporting that would be required while allowing the operator that is lower-level certified to increase their certification while still maintaining their position within the community and allowing them to advance.
Lindsay Beaman (10:35):
So, we help them work us back out of their community.
Jarad Diedrich (10:38):
Yes, it’d be a temporary thing where you would just come in and help the community get to where they needed to be to meet the requirements.
Advantages to Municipalities in Hiring a Licensed Operator
Jarad Diedrich (10:44):
So, Lindsay, what were some of the ways that you sold this position when you were advocating to bring a certified operator on board?
Lindsay Beaman (10:50):
When we decided to hire a Grade 3 Operator to have on staff here at Snyder & Associates, a lot of the reasoning for that was because we have clients with needs, whether that is a need for some short-term staffing help or just for the startup of plants, interpreting engineering design decisions in the field, being just a long term, a better solution for the needs of our direct clients.
I know in talking with the DNR. They are advocates of providing any support that can be possible in the industry and excited about opportunities like the one that we’ve created here because sometimes there is just that need for a little assistance with certain communities. Maybe it is to fill a gap between trainees or to fill a gap when there’s an illness or retirement. Maybe there are just like Jarad had said, part-time needs, and it’s hard to find staff for that in the current job environment. It didn’t seem like a hard thing to advocate for having an operator on staff because we’ve seen in a couple of years that Jarad has been working with us that we have had plenty of work for him to do as the industry demands some additional assistance. It’s a growing market, so definitely appreciate having a licensed operator on staff who can meet the needs of Snyder & Associates clients.
One of the biggest things we wanted to address here today was just the importance of having licensed and certified water and wastewater treatment plant operators within the communities. And it’s not just to meet compliance. There are EPA-mandated rules to protect the health and safety of our communities and the public environments, but some unspoken heroes here. We don’t talk enough about how these are public stewards. That when you turn on your tap or flush your toilet, if you never have to ever think twice about how you get that water, or if it’s safe, you know, these are the heroes of your communities, and maybe we should do a better job of promoting how important they are. I mean, we have communities full of families, infants, elderly. Emergency responders need to be able to tap into a fire hydrant without thinking twice. Hospitals need a consistent flow of water industries, et cetera. Within the Midwest, at least it’s never a second thought about where your clean drinking water is coming from. This is a really important industry, and we needed to support them in their roles and make sure that they can successfully give back to our community and our environment.
Jarad Diedrich (13:09):
Yeah, I agree with that a hundred percent. Another thing that would be helpful going forward is if we can get leadership and communities to advocate for their operators, to make sure that they are equipped and have the things that they need to do their job to the best of their abilities. That would go a long way to feel the support from a community to make sure that operators that are on staff, feel comfortable with where they’re at and keep moving forward with positive outcomes.
Lindsay Beaman (13:36):
Because maybe it might not be as easy for a city council to understand it directly from one mouth. Maybe they want to hear a bigger industry voice. I think we could certainly help with that.
Jarad Diedrich (13:48):
Yes. That would be an opportunity to help share some knowledge, experience, and some of the difficulties that communities face. Maybe to help enlighten the public a little bit for the community to understand better what operators do, what their roles are, and how that can be a part of moving operators in the right direction.
Lindsay Beaman (14:06):
Jarad. Thanks for talking to me today about this really important topic and for being an advocate for the water and wastewater industry. The need for certified operators is huge because it’s the lifeblood of our communities to continue getting clean and affordable access to drinking water. Snyder & Associates would be happy to continue this conversation and help in any way possible, from very minimal assistance to full-time services or with any needs that might arise.
Do you have any other follow-up comments you’d like to add?
Jarad Diedrich (14:35):
I just think that this is a very beneficial topic to cover. It’s something that needs to be discussed more often. It also needs to be discussed within communities, especially when they are starting to see retirements and shortfalls impact their community. And I look forward to progressing this and seeing where this leads us.
Lindsay Beaman (14:53):