| Florida Section program preps high schoolers for water treatment jobs
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Florida Section program preps high schoolers for water treatment jobs

Mathieu Schloss has been interested in keeping the environment clean for as long as he can remember.

So, when he started high school and learned about a program that prepares students for careers as water or wastewater treatment plant operators, it seemed like a natural fit.  

Mathieu Schloss“I knew this was a career I wanted to do,” said Schloss (pictured right), who graduated from St. Johns Technical High School in Northeast Florida three years ago and is now a C-licensed wastewater operator at St. Johns County Utilities. “It’s nice knowing you’re doing something good for the environment. And it’s a job most people don’t know much about. They think water goes down the drain or the toilet and that’s the end of it.”

The Florida Section of American Water Works Association (FSAWWA) received the 2020 Section Education Award for its High School Academy Program. The need to hire well-trained operators to replace retiring employees is urgent — in AWWA’s 2020 State of the Water Industry, respondents ranked “aging workforce/anticipated retirements” as one of the top 10 challenges facing the water industry.

Steve Soltau“If we can find people who have already taken courses, taken exams, people who know what they’re getting themselves into, that’s better for everyone,” said Steve Soltau (pictured left), who helped start the Florida academy program. “We need to find skilled applicants to fill those vacancies.”

Soltau would know: In 1984, he began his career as a water treatment operator trainee. Through the years, he has worked his way up to his current position as operations division director for Pinellas County Utilities, and now he’s eyeing retirement in the next few years.

“They had to hire more people as I moved up, and now I’m headed out the door,” he said. “Attrition is natural. And who knows what COVID will bring? People might say, ‘I’m going to move onto something different,’ and we’ll need to fill those spots too.”

Florida High School Academy students on field tripFlorida’s High School Academy Program began in 2013 with two schools. It has since expanded to five schools and prepared more than 150 students to take the Florida treatment plant operator exam. Each school has its own teacher and utility sponsor, and FSAWWA contributes a $9,000 grant over three years for textbooks, laboratory and classroom supplies and bus rentals for field trips. The section also provides scholarships for students to retake the operator exam if necessary. (Pictured right, students attend a field trip to learn more about the water sector.)

A quarter of the students who have taken the exam have passed and earned their certificates of completion upon their high school graduation, making them eligible to become operator trainees.

“We want to become a first choice of employment,” Soltau said. “Get these kids skilled and qualified at high school graduation, and it creates jobs within our own community. They graduate with work-ready skills, and by fall, they have a job.”

Students in water labYvonne Picard, senior project manager at Atkins, helps manage the Florida Section’s academy program. She recommended that other sections or agencies thinking about creating a similar program reach out to those with well-established plans in place. “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “Talk to people who are doing it and figure out what would work for your school or utility.” (Pictured left, students in a water lab)

Prospective programs should contact local school district advisory committees, she said, and begin with schools that are within walking distance of a utility to make it easier for mentors and students to connect.

Above all, though, be persistent. “We don’t want to lose those students to other professions,” Picard said. “We can use them in this industry.”

Schloss agreed, and encouraged other incoming high schoolers to consider careers in water or wastewater.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Schloss, who is now preparing for his B-operator license. “Every local utility is going to need operators sooner or later. It’s a one-of-a-kind job, a secure career that you’ll love going to each day.”

Soltau said it’s worth the work to prepare the next generation of water and wastewater professionals. Introducing high schoolers to treatment operator jobs opens their eyes to the many careers available in the water sector and provides them a broader appreciation for the role utilities play in their communities.

“There’s a whole new level of education for these young people,” Soltau said. “They learn about the environment, water pollution and climate change. We’re trying to leave the world a better place, and this is a good way to do that.”