Training the Next Generation of Water Workers

According to the experts, water utilities could lose 30 to 50 percent of workers to retirement over the next 10 years. This loss of institutional knowledge is a significant concern, and one the industry is working diligently to address. In response, CoBank has committed $350,000 to the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) to underwrite the NRWA Apprenticeship Program to target and train the next generation of technical workers.

In 2017, NRWA and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Apprenticeship established nationwide standards for water and wastewater systems apprenticeships, which laid the groundwork for the creation of an effective and replicable program. CoBank’s contribution provides funding for a national framework that supports the State Rural Water Affiliate (SRWA) apprentice programs, apprentice scholarships, marketing efforts to recruit program participants, and tracking software that will measure the program’s performance.

Jim Enterline is the apprenticeship program coordinator for the Missouri Rural Water Association, just one of the statewide organizations taking part in the program.

“NRWA and the DOL did the work to establish the guidelines, which meant that we [the statewides] didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” said Enterline. “Then CoBank’s funding helped us to recruit apprentices and employers. I’m not sure we could have gotten the program off the ground without them.”

Through the NRWA Apprenticeship Program, interns receive two years of mentorship, on-the-job training and 288 hours of coursework. Classes cover topics including distribution, treatment, management, emergency operations, and safety.

“Our apprentices receive training specific to Missouri’s water systems,” said Enterline. “By the time they complete the program, participants will earn a state certificate as well as a Department of Labor journeyman water systems operation specialist certificate. That’s actually a higher certification than the state requires. And while we certainly hope they stay in Missouri, this training will make them marketable no matter where they decide to go in the future.”

Roger Ballew runs Public Water Supply District #9 in Boone County, Missouri.

“Working in water is a challenging but rewarding career,” said Ballew. “Water operators are out there every day, doing the job no matter what. Our system has approximately 6,000 connections and serves everything from family farms to light industrial complexes. We provide water to fire protection services and have just as much responsibility for public health as doctors and hospitals. We keep the water clean so you don’t get sick. People don’t hear about water operators unless something bad has happened, so I guess being taken for granted is our greatest success. But it can make it difficult to recruit new employees.”

Ballew learned about the Missouri Rural Water Association’s registered apprenticeship program during a presentation at his statewide annual conference and immediately recognized its potential.

“At a time when everybody is talking about the burden of student debt, a career in water offers a unique opportunity,” said Ballew. “Students can come to us straight out of high school, start part-time in the summer and end up with a lifelong career in the industry. No student loans required!”

Ballew recommended 22-year-old Brenden Smith for the apprenticeship program. Smith had been working part-time for the system doing maintenance work, but wanted to do more.

“At the time, I was going to school, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” said Smith. “Everybody is always going to need water, so this seemed like a great opportunity. And my grandpa worked for the system for 15 years, so my family was really pleased.”

Smith was partnered with Tim Darling, his supervisor and mentor throughout his apprenticeship.

“Working for a small, rural water system, you can’t just test water,” said Darling. “You have to be an electrician, a carpenter, a maintenance man, a plumber, a landscaper and more. You have to do it all. And Brenden is great at that.”

Enterline agrees, “Young people like Brenden represent the future of water systems across the country and I’m confident that the NRWA Apprenticeship Program is providing them with the hands-on experience they need to get them ready to take on that challenge. It’s a great feeling to know that our future is in good hands.”