By Warren Tenney
Skilled people who treat and distribute drinking water and collect and treat wastewater are retiring at a high rate. Jobs are opening up in Arizona’s small towns and big cities. It takes smart, ambitious and persistent job seekers to get started in these public health jobs. Utilities will hire people who trained just after high school and those who opt to change careers. Cities have hired veterans, former health care providers, chemists, environmental study graduates, food workers, sales people, construction workers, auto mechanics, warehouse workers, janitors and police officers. Arizona has about 1,500 water systems and 800 wastewater systems. Interested? Know someone who might be? Here are the basics.
What do I need? To start as an entry-level water or wastewater operator you need a high school diploma or a general education degree (GED) and Grade 1 certification in one of four areas:
- Water Treatment or Water Distribution certification qualifies a person to work for a public water system.
- Wastewater Treatment or Wastewater Collections certification qualifies a person to work in a plant that treats wastewater for reuse, such as irrigation or direct injection back into Arizona’s aquifers.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) grants these certifications. To earn Grade 1 level certification in any of these four areas a candidate must receive a 70 percent grade on a three-hour, 100-question, in-person, proctored exam. These exams are given throughout the year and throughout the state. Once you earn Grade 1 certification, you can advance by earning Grade 2, Grade 3 and Grade 4 certification in each of the areas.
How can I prepare for the exam? Gateway Community College, 108 N. 40th St. in Phoenix, offers a two-year and a one-year program in Water and Wastewater Treatment.
- Two-year program: This program’s goal is to teach students the knowledge and skills needed to pass a Grade 1 certification exam and up to a Grade 2 certification exam. Students who complete the two-year program earn an Associate of Arts degree in Water and Wastewater Treatment.
- One-year program: This program’s goal is to teach students the knowledge and skills needed to pass a Grade 1 certification exam in either Water or Wastewater Treatment.
The programs include online and in-person courses taught by local water managers, hands-on experience at local utilities, and internships. The program accommodates working adults, so most in-person classes are in the evening or on Saturdays. Graduates from both programs still must pass the ADEQ certification exams.
What does it cost? In August 2016, Gateway Community College opened the Surprise Gateway Training Center dedicated to Water and Wastewater Treatment courses. The facility is open to anyone wishing to take courses through Gateway Community College. There are currently 14 one-year scholarships available for people living in Surprise or Luke Air Force Base. West Valley residents also are encouraged to apply. Without a scholarship, tuition is $2,781 for Gateway’s one-year certification course and $6,736 for the two-year degree. AZ Water Association in partnership with the American Water Works Association also has a scholarship program that offers $2,500 for water operator training and educational expenses.
It costs about $100 to take the ADEQ exam, depending on the location. Once you pass the exam there is a $65 fee to apply for certification.
Where can I work? ADEQ grades each water and wastewater treatment plant in Arizona from 1 through 4 depending on the complexity of its equipment, the number of people it serves and its size. The grade of the plant determines the grade of the operator needed to run the plant. Many large treatment plants also hire Grade 1 and Grade 2 level operators as staff members.
If you plan to move, it’s best to plan ahead because each state has its own requirements for accepting out-of-state certifications. Arizona uses exams created by the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), which are used in many states.
What does it pay? The median wage for treatment plant operators nationally is about $45,000 a year. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2016 median wage in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is $52,370 and ranges from $47,000 to $40,000 throughout the rest of the state.
How can I get hired? All the cities hire differently. Gateway Community College makes internships part of its course work, while some cities have their own internship and trainee programs. Some cities allow you to volunteer or intern a few days a week to get an idea of what the job is like before going through the training and certification process.
Water professionals have a few tips. Whether you are interviewing as a potential volunteer, an intern or a job candidate, come prepared to talk the language of water and wastewater treatment, water distribution and wastewater collection. Study the plant where you want to work and understand how it works. Take a class in interviewing skills so you can express yourself clearly and concisely. The City of Peoria recently had an opening for a Grade 1 Water Treatment Plant Operator. The City interviewed candidates that had shown interest in the job, such as those who interned at any city or private water or wastewater plant, completed online courses, or were Gateway students or graduates. Peoria hired a former warehouse worker who had volunteered at a treatement plant on his days off, earned an Associates degree from Gateway and passed the ADEQ Grade 1 certification exam in both water treatment and wastewater treatment.
For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.