Five or six years ago, the National Rural Water Association realized that approximately 50% of its wastewater employees would be retiring in just a few years. With this knowledge, the North Carolina Rural Water Association began developing and putting together standards and curriculum for an apprenticeship program, adding to the national level standards while focusing on the more specific needs of the state. It was at this point Carolyn Bynum, North Carolina Rural Water Association workforce development coordinator, started in her position to assist the executive director in polishing up the standards and curriculum to meet the needs of the North Carolina wastewater systems.
These standards and curriculum were submitted to the state registration agency to be registered, and they were approved in September 2020. This allowed the NCRWA to place its first apprentice in the program in November 2020, its second apprentice in December 2020 and its third apprentice in February 2021. This third apprentice will be the program’s first completed apprenticeship soon, with just a few hours to go before completion.
The first year of the apprenticeship program, Bynum reached out to various towns via career fairs, schools, mailings and visiting military bases. The goal is also to bring more diversity into the field, not just the primarily male Caucasian population who typically hold wastewater jobs, to show anyone can work in the field. The program can also assist veterans in connecting with a new career path. They can even be given credit for any prior experience they may have received during their military service.
Cities will also reach out to Bynum, searching for an apprentice through the NCRWA program. She will then recruit for that position specifically within that area to best meet the city’s needs. The city of Clayton approached her regarding its needs in the wastewater plant. Meanwhile, the city of Lexington was reaching a critical need when it heard about the program and reached out. It now has five apprentices.
In order to be accepted into the program, potential apprentices must go through a rigorous application process. Each potential apprentice must be at least 18 years of age, have a valid driver’s license and pass a drug screening and background check. The candidate then interviews with Bynum to check their desire for longevity in the wastewater career path. If all other requirements are passed, the candidate then must take a basic skills assessment. As Bynum mentioned, “Most people don’t realize wastewater is so math and science focused.” She must know the candidate’s strengths in order to place them in the appropriate instruction. After all this, the candidate may finally be accepted.
After acceptance, the apprentice then chooses which career path preference they wish to follow — water systems or wastewater operations systems specialist. Bynum then works to match each apprentice with a city workforce searching for an apprentice on that path. Each apprentice must also decide if they are willing to relocate at their own expense. Currently, those willing to relocate can be placed more quickly in positions.
A city must also go through a process in order to accept an apprentice into its workforce, including getting the apprentice approved by the city council. The city must also meet the standards of the NCRWA, implementing an employer agreement and wage scale to ensure each apprentice is paid better than the living wage.
Once matched with a city, the apprentice receives their own individual mentor with a strict 1:1 ratio to provide the best training in such a rigorous program. The level of engagement each apprentice has with the systems and mentor has been “smooth sailing” thus far, as described by Bynum. Apprentices also have a tracking system to record their on-the-job training each day. These apprentices are trained on how to operate the plant and must become adept at monitoring the required electronic systems to ensure the plant is functioning. They also learn how to perform maintenance on pumps, do water sampling and adjust levels of flow.
Each apprentice must complete 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, including class certifications and passing the exams. Only one certification exam can be taken at a time. Therefore, this process takes approximately two years. There are 288 or more hours of technical instruction. Between Bynum and the mentor, these apprentices are “constantly being reminded to ensure all processes are being followed according to guidelines,” she assured. “The mentor is an expert and plays a critical role and goes in and reviews entries to verify if they are correct.”
Then, if the apprentice is new to the industry and is putting in documentation of a process and misses a step, the mentor can catch the mistake quickly and correct it. Apprentices also go through teamwork, leadership and workforce development classes.
The importance of water and wastewater operators, Bynum believed, is not fully understood. She stressed it is a demanding job and they are essential operators who act as the frontline defense against infectious diseases in the water. These apprentices train to bring a common product to cities and residents that is often overlooked and taken for granted.
Currently, there is a wait list of apprentices, so Bynum is working to locate cities and systems in their area to place each of them. Bynum recommends cities do not wait until they have already reached a critical situation. “Don’t wait until someone retires to access apprenticeship,” she urged. “You want those who will retire to train the apprentice.”