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Water Treatment Plant and System Operator Job Description, Career as a Water Treatment Plant and System Operator, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High School plus training

Salary: Median—$34,960 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Water treatment plant and system operators treat contaminated water so that it is safe to drink. Pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to water treatment plants, water then undergoes a series of processes that remove or destroy harmful materials and microorganisms. System operators ensure that the purification process goes smoothly and efficiently.

To do this, water treatment plant and system operators control high-tech equipment, such as control pumps, valves, and computers, that moves the water through the numerous treatment processes. Operators are responsible for testing the water at various stages of treatment; interpreting and adjusting meters and gauges; and performing chemical and biological laboratory analyses. Advanced computer technology has provided operators with a valuable tool in monitoring equipment, testing the water for harmful materials, and troubleshooting problems in the treatment process.

Water treatment plant and system operators must follow the water pollution standards set by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. In the Clean Water Act, the federal government strictly controls the discharge of pollutants in the water supply. The Safe Drinking Water Act sets standards for drinking water. Because new contaminants are added to the prohibitions on a regular basis, operators must be familiar with all federal and local regulations, laws, and standards regarding the quality of drinking water.

In large water treatment plants, operators work with chemists, engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, and supervisors. They often specialize in one aspect of the water treatment process and have a lot of support staff to ensure the process goes smoothly. In smaller plants there is less staff; therefore, an operator may be responsible for many tasks, such as operating machinery, keeping records, and performing repairs and maintenance.

Education and Training Requirements

Employers require workers to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. An associate degree or a one-year certificate program in water quality and waste-water treatment technology is very beneficial, because these programs offer a thorough education in water and wastewater treatment processes, as well as valuable training for the job. The Water Quality Association provides a certification program.

Operators must have mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Courses in mechanical and electrical engineering can also be helpful. Training in computer technology is necessary; computers are increasingly used to monitor equipment, perform tests, and analyze work flow.

For certain jobs, prospective operators must take a civil service exam, which tests their mathematics skills, mechanical aptitude, and general intelligence.

Operators begin as attendants or operators-in-training and undergo extensive on-the-job training. In some instances, some treatment plants offer formal training programs. As treatment processes change and scientific technology has advanced, most water pollution control agencies at the state level provide courses that provide up-to-date information on treatment processes and process control, computer technology, management skills, and maintenance procedures. Continuing education is also available at the American Water Works Association, which offers online courses, webcasts, and scholarships.

Getting the Job

Because almost four in five water treatment plant and system operators work for local governments, applicants can apply directly to their local government to be an attendant or operator-in-training. Prospective employees may have to take a civil service exam before applying. Local government agencies will have their requirements posted in their offices, or applicants can check the Internet for information in their area. Candidates can also apply directly to private water companies. Local job centers at libraries and schools will provide further information on how to proceed.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Experienced water treatment plant operators can become responsible for more complex treatment processes or can be promoted to supervisor or superintendent. Others can become a technician with state drinking water or water pollution agencies, where they consult with water treatment plants.

The number of positions for environmental technicians will grow as fast as the average through the year 2014. Job prospects will be good for qualified individuals because the increasing population is expected to boost demand for clean water.

Working Conditions

Water treatment can be physically demanding work, and an operator may be exposed to noise and unpleasant odors. They will work both indoors and outdoors in all kinds of weather. Although there are stringent safety procedures in water treatment plants, operators might face hazardous conditions, such as dangerous gases and malfunctioning equipment. Operators may have to work overtime, as well as overnight shifts.

Earnings and Benefits

The median salary of a water treatment plant and system operator is $34,960 per year. Experienced operators can earn more than $53,540 per year. Those who worked for local governments earned a median annual salary of $34,990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Where to Go for More Information

American Water Works Association
6666 W. Quincy Ave.
Denver, CO 80235
(303) 794-7711

National Association of Water Companies
1725 K. Street, NW, Ste. 200
Washington, DC 20006
(292) 833-8383

Water Quality Association
4151 Naperville Rd.
Lisle, IL 60532-1088
(630) 505-0160

Operators usually receive benefits that include health and dental insurance, a 401K, and an educational reimbursement for job-related courses.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesAgribusiness, Environment, and Natural Resources