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Posted on: May 25, 2012

Career Spotlight: Water quality jobs offer stable careers, advancement

Communities large and small across Kansas have one thing in common: they all depend on clean water to function properly and provide their citizens with a high quality of life. A career in the water quality field includes a variety of job titles and responsibilities, as well as options to work in different sectors within the field: water production, distribution, wastewater management and water conservation, to name just a few.

Career forecasters estimate that as many as 30 percent of the individuals employed in this field are eligible to retire in the next five years, potentially leaving a significant worker shortage in Kansas but also an opportunity for high school graduates or mid-life career changers to enter a field with varied work, advancement opportunities, and good pay and benefits.

“Water quality is a huge issue for Kansas communities, large and small,” said Kansas Commerce Secretary Pat George. “This is a great opportunity for someone just entering the workforce or looking to make a career change into a growing and dynamic field. We are actively recruiting the next generation of workers for this sector.”

David Buehler is superintendent of wastewater treatment for the city of Ottawa, located in Franklin County in northeast Kansas. Buehler started with the city in 2000 in water maintenance and advanced from there. He came to the city from a career in the private sector.

“I was looking for stability, when I came over from the private sector,” Buehler said. “I would definitely recommend this career track. My only regret was not making the move sooner.”

Buehler estimated that as many as five of his seven staff members could move on in the next five years. There will likely be more retirements on the water distribution side of the city’s operations. Besides the superintendent positions in the wastewater and water distribution operations, the city has assistant superintendents and a variety of operators and maintenance staff positions. Individuals in the operator and maintenance positions could handle everything from repairing leaks and fire hydrants to replacing water mains.

Dan Defore manages water production and distribution as water superintendent for the city of Winfield, in Cowley County in south central Kansas. He has been employed by the city since 1998 and has been working in the water quality field since 2004.

Defore said the water operator position had changed a lot since he started in the industry. Before, operators primarily needed a good grasp of chemistry and math, which is still true, but now workers also need skills on the technical side for online monitoring and working with computer systems.
“These are not the most glamorous jobs, but you get a great sense of accomplishment supplying water to a city of our size,” Defore said. “Industry wide, there’s probably going to be a lot of turnover. Opportunities for advancement are definitely there.”

Leland Cable has managed a variety of water quality operations for Garden City, located in Finney County in the western part of the state. Currently the water superintendent, he also supervised the wastewater side at the same time for three years.

Besides Garden City, Cable’s career has taken him to Monroe, La., as its water distribution superintendent. For 10 years there, he managed maintenance of fire hydrants, construction of water mains, fixing water meters, and also coordinated leak repairs and handled water quality complaints.

“I’ve been doing this for 24 years,” Leland said. “I started when I was 26. There are job opportunities in this field. People don’t realize that water is going to be one of the critical factors for communities in the future. People are always going to need water. There will always be a need for quality water operators.”

Spotlight on Water Quality Careers

Need: Forecasts suggest up to 30 percent of workers in this field could retire in the next five years. There are more than 4,500 state-certified water quality workers in Kansas.

Types of Positions Available: Opportunities available in water production, distribution, wastewater treatment and conservation. Entry level positions typically include operators and maintenance type positions moving up to assistant superintendent and superintendent positions.

Typical Duties: Duties can vary greatly, from repairing water meters, hydrants and mains, to water main construction and replacement, water testing and sampling, laboratory work, and rehabbing sewer lines and lagoon pits. Supervisory positions require good management skills. All workers in this field should have good people skills, as interacting with the public and handling customer complaints is common.

Salary/Benefits: Wages can vary, depending on location and size of the community in question. Typical entry level salaries can vary between $9-$11 per hour to $50,000-$65,000 or more for management positions. Workers employed by cities can receive comprehensive medical, retirement and disability benefits.

Training and Certifications: High school graduates can enter this field with an associate’s degree, and there are additional certification requirements by the state. The employer usually will pay for the certification and continuing education courses.

For those interested in learning more, the Kansas Department of Commerce has partnered with Salina Area Technical College (SATC), the Kansas Municipal Utilities and KANSASWORKS to offer a Certificate of Career Exploration in Water Quality program at SATC. The course is 30 hours, spread over seven days, with classes scheduled to begin on May 31 and ending on July 2.

Students registering for the program who are currently unemployed, underemployed, veterans or economically disadvantaged may receive a full scholarship through KANSASWORKS under a State Energy Sector Partnership and Training Grant.

For more information or to enroll in the Certificate of Career Exploration in Water Quality program, contact Salina Area Technical College at (785) 309-3124 or go to www.salinatech.edu.

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