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
  • 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 regulations
  • Ensure safety standards are met

It takes a lot of work to get water from natural sources—reservoirs, streams, and groundwater—into our taps. Similarly, it is a complicated process to convert the wastewater in our 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.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, weather conditions may 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. Operators are trained in emergency management procedures and use safety equipment to protect their health, as well as that of the public.

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 do similar work to remove pollutants from domestic and industrial waste. Used water, also known as wastewater, travels through sewage 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 111,000 jobs in 2012, of which 78 percent were in local government. About 11 percent worked for water, sewage, and other systems utilities.

Injuries and Illnesses

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

They must pay close attention to safety procedures because of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, the presence of dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment. As a result, workers experience an occupational injury and illness rate that is much higher than the average for all occupations.

Work Schedules

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. During severe weather conditions and natural disasters, operators are more likely to be on call and may have to work overtime, weekends, or holidays.

Education and Training

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

Education

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need a high school diploma or equivalent to become operators. Employers may prefer applicants who have completed a certificate or an associate’s degree program in water quality management or wastewater treatment technology, because the education minimizes the training a worker will need. Community colleges, technical schools, and trade associations offer these certificate or associate's degree programs.

Training

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified. Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training and 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 doing simple maintenance and repair work on plant equipment.

Larger treatment plants generally 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.

States licenses typically have four 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 four levels of licenses for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators. Each increase in license level allows the operator to control a larger plant and 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 $42,760 in May 2012. 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 $25,850, and the top 10 percent earned more than $67,810.

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. During severe weather conditions and natural disasters, operators are more likely to be on call and may have to work overtime, weekends, or holidays.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to grow 8 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

A growing population and increased demand for water and wastewater treatment services will drive employment growth. Population growth, particularly in suburban areas, will require new plants or increased capacity at current plants. As existing plants expand and new plants are built to meet this demand, new operator jobs will be created.

Plants will also need more operators to ensure compliance with increased environmental and safety regulations. New regulations often require that plants install new systems or features that operators need to control. Although some work can be automated, plants will need skilled workers to operate increasingly complex controls and water and wastewater systems.

Job Prospects

Job prospects for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators should be excellent. New jobs will be created when existing plants expand and new plants are built. The number of applicants for these positions is normally low, because of the physically demanding and unappealing nature of some of the work. Job prospects will be best for those with training or 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

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

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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I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).