Here’s the problem: There is a real shortage of real jobs now. The ones that are full-time, pay a decent salary and some benefits. Employers, on the other hand, often have trouble finding prospective employees with the right skills.
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El Dorado Irrigation District was one of those employers. It operates five water treatment plants and four wastewater treatment facilities. Two of them produce recycled water, used to irrigate yards and commercial and public landscapes.
With California’s high standards for water and wastewater treatment, requiring training and certification, EID was having trouble finding qualified treatment operators.
The solution: Set up its own training program, with internships that can lead to employment.
EID Director George Wheeldon took the lead. Wheeldon is a consulting geologist and emeritus professor of geology at Folsom Lake College. He began teaching at the college in 1966 and has two classes this fall.
Wheeldon said he introduced the water and wastewater training program as a result of being on the EID board and seeing how difficult it was to find employees who have the proper licenses to work at local plants. The state mandates employees have Grade 1 to Grade 5 certificates.
“I reasoned that ‘Why not train our own people?’ We sent out a questionnaire to 28 surrounding water districts to see if they would be interested in participating in the program. Since I was teaching at Folsom Lake College, I contacted the dean. We coordinated a technical committee to develop the curriculum and coordinated it with the state. It took a couple of years to develop the program and get state approval, but now it is up and running. It is a win-win for both the college and EID.”
Dale van Dam, Folsom Lake College dean of instruction at the El Dorado Center in Placerville, said all of the classes are offered at the El Dorado Center. Five classes are being offered this fall.
“This program is a good example of the college responding to an expressed local need and forming a certificate program with a favorable employment projection. The need for training in this area was definitely voiced by El Dorado County constituents, including EID and its Board of Directors. EID employees were key contributors to the launch of the program, serving on the advisory board, writing curriculum, and then stepping up to teach the classes.”
A description of the Water Management Certificate Program is in the Folsom Lake College Fall Catalog. Required classes are in the fields of mathematics, science, computers, business and management.
Vicki Caulfield teaches the Wastewater Certificate Program classes. She is the wastewater recycled water manager of operations for EID. Classes are held on weekday evenings. The summer course started with a class of 36 and a waiting list of 14.
Steve Boren, EID interim plant supervisor at Deer Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, teaches in the program. Sarah Lowery, electrical and instrumentation technician, teaches math and an instrumentation course.
The intern program began this semester. Caulfield said that students who are enrolled in the Water and Wastewater Technology program are able to obtain an Operator-in-Training certificate from the state. The certificate allows them to gain training hours toward the 2,080-hour requirement for the Grade 1 Wastewater Operator certificate. They also have to enroll in the Work Experience class. Caulfield plans to have four interns, two at each wastewater facility.
Caulfield described the current situation: “A lot of adults are rethinking their careers since the economic turndown and massive layoffs over the past two years. There is a need for operations staff at both water and wastewater facilities. The largest challenge is finding Grade III certified wastewater operators. (Grade III is considered the journeyman level.)
“This is a common occurrence throughout the United States. Public agencies have been competing on attracting the most qualified industry professionals by offering better benefits and higher pay. The role of a certified wastewater operator can be challenging since it is required by law. Operators could go to jail or be subject to civil fines and penalties if they don’t fulfill their role as a certified operator.”
Dana Strahan, drinking water operations manager, teaches the water management classes: Water Treatment Operations and Maintenance 1 and II, Distribution Operations and Introduction to Water, and Wastewater and Recycled Water Management. This fall he teaches a class on Wednesdays from 6-9 p.m. Strahan said his introductory classes are usually full. His advanced class this fall has 15 students, with room for more. He said he has no interns at present.
Teaching class in addition to a regular full-time job is a big commitment. Strahan said, “The water industry has been very good to me and my family. Having the opportunity to give back the knowledge I have to the next generation of operators is very gratifying.”
Jon Beal, a supervisor at the El Dorado Hills Water Treatment Plant, is a Level V operator. He said the operators are required to complete a certain number of college units each year to keep their certificates. They are trained in security and have a one-hour safety meeting each week. Young people who are interested in the field can take classes beginning in high school, he said.
Beal said operators now have to be good at computers. A lot of people “washed out” who were not, he said. However, Beal and another computer aficionado, Phil Houseworth, took the Dreamweaver Web design class and created an online manual that illustrates the proper procedures for operating the plant.
Alison Costa, EID human resources analyst, said the treatment plant operator positions are well paid. “It is also a job skill that is transferable,” she said. “They can go anywhere in the world.”
EID is offering public tours through the El Dorado Hills Water Treatment Plant on three upcoming Wednesdays, Aug. 24, Sept. 14 and Sept. 28. To make a reservation, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-642-4408. Each tour is limited to 25 people and EID ratepayers have priority.