Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators manage a system of machines, often through the use of control boards, to transfer or treat water or wastewater.

Duties

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically do the following:

  • Add chemicals, such as ammonia or chlorine, to disinfect water or other liquids
  • Inspect equipment on a regular basis
  • Monitor operating conditions, meters, and gauges
  • Collect and test water and sewage samples
  • Record meter and gauge readings and operational data
  • Document and report test results to regulatory agencies
  • Operate equipment to purify and clarify water or to process or dispose of sewage
  • Clean and maintain equipment, tanks, filter beds, and other work areas
  • Follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations
  • Ensure safety standards are met

It takes many steps to get water from natural sources—reservoirs, streams, and groundwater—into people’s houses. Similarly, it is a complicated process to convert the wastewater from drains and sewers into a form that is safe to release into the environment.

The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of the plant. In a small plant, one operator may be responsible for maintaining all of the systems. In large plants, multiple operators work the same shifts and are more specialized in their duties, often relying on computerized systems to help them monitor plant processes.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be able to manually operate the equipment if there is a plant malfunction due to power outages or electrical issues.

Water treatment plant and system operators work in water treatment plants. Fresh water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, or reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Water treatment plant and system operators run the equipment, control the processes, and monitor the plants that treat water to make it safe to drink.

Wastewater treatment plant and system operators remove pollutants from domestic and industrial waste. Used water, also known as wastewater, travels through sewer pipes to treatment plants where it is treated and either returned to streams, rivers, and oceans, or used for irrigation.

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Work Environment

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators held about 127,100 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals                             77%
Utilities 11
Manufacturing 3

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors. Their work is physically demanding and usually is performed in locations that are unclean or difficult to access. Operators may be exposed to noise from machinery and are often exposed to unpleasant odors.

Injuries and Illnesses

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators sometimes get injured on the job. They must pay close attention to safety procedures because of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, the presence of dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment.

Operators are trained in emergency management procedures and use safety equipment to protect their health, as well as that of the public.

Work Schedules

Water and waste treatment plant and system operators typically work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, they may need to work during weather conditions that cause large amounts of storm water or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

Education and Training

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent and a license to work. They also complete on-the-job training.

Education

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need a high school diploma or equivalent to become operators. Employers may prefer applicants who have completed a certificate, an associate’s, or a bachelor’s degree program in a related field such as environmental science or wastewater treatment technology.

Training

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified. Water and wastewater treatment is a complex process. Trainees learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. The trainees learn by observing and doing routine tasks, such as recording meter readings, taking samples of wastewater and sludge, and performing simple maintenance and repair work on plant equipment. They also learn about industrial safety and how to use personal protective equipment.

Larger treatment plants usually combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs. As plants get larger and more complicated, operators need more skills before they are allowed to work without supervision.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be licensed by the state in which they work. Requirements and standards vary widely depending on the state.

State licenses typically have multiple levels, which indicate the operator’s experience and training. Although some states will honor licenses from other states, operators who move from one state to another may need to take a new set of exams to become licensed in their new state.

Advancement

Most states have multiple levels of licenses for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators. Each increase in license level allows the operator to perform more complicated processes without supervision.

At the largest plants, operators who have the highest license level work as shift supervisors and may be in charge of large teams of operators.

Personality and Interests

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically have an interest in the Building and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators should also possess the following specific qualities:

Analytical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must conduct tests and inspections on water or wastewater and evaluate the results.

Detail oriented. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must monitor machinery, gauges, dials, and controls to ensure everything is operating properly. Because tap water and wastewater are highly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, operators must be careful and thorough in completing these tasks.

Math skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must have the ability to apply data to formulas that determine treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels.

Mechanical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must know how to work with machines and use tools. They must be familiar with how to operate, repair, and maintain equipment.

Pay

The median annual wage for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators was $47,760 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,600.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals                                     $47,930
Utilities 46,400
Manufacturing 45,840

Water and waste treatment plant and system operators work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, they may need to work during weather conditions that cause large amounts of storm water or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

Job Outlook

Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to decline 5 percent from 2018 to 2028.  

As water and wastewater treatment plants become more advanced with automated systems to manage treatment processes, fewer workers may be needed. Although some work can be automated, plants will still need skilled workers to operate increasingly complex controls and water and wastewater systems.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities are expected to arise from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation permanently over the coming decade. Job prospects will be best for those with training or higher education in water or wastewater systems and good mechanical skills.

For More Information

For information on employment opportunities, contact state or local water pollution control agencies, state water and wastewater operator associations, state environmental training centers, or local offices of the state employment service.

For information related to a career as a water or wastewater treatment plant and system operator, visit

American Water Works Association

The National Rural Water Association

Water Environment Federation

Work for Water

For more information on certification for water or wastewater treatment plant and system operator, visit

Association of Boards of Certification

 

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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