Although some wastewater operators enter the profession directly from high school, community colleges and technical schools offer associate's and certificate programs in the field. While both programs may focus on topics such as safe disposal techniques, plant maintenance and environmental law, certificate programs are somewhat shorter than 2-year associate's degree programs. Online coursework may be offered in certificate programs. The curricula at both levels may include internships that allow students to get practical experience. The Association of Boards of Certification administers qualifying examinations to experienced specialists who want to earn professional credentials.
Associate's Degree in Wastewater Technology
This degree program teaches students the basics of wastewater treatment, from grit removal to safe methods of handling toxic materials. Good math and science skills are an asset for the student entering this program, and a high school diploma is a requirement. This program is designed to give students the skills to enter the workforce as a technologist rather than in an entry-level position. Courses are taught in both classroom and lab formats. General education courses in microbiology and related sciences provide a foundation for core courses, which cover subjects that include:
- Chlorination and disinfection
- Theoretical principles of waste removal applications
- Safe effluence disposal techniques
- Plant maintenance
Certificate in Wastewater Operations
Certificate programs are available as an abbreviated version of the associate's degree and may be acquired in lieu of the degree or as continuing education for professionals. Some certificate programs are for graduated levels of training which pertain to a state's licensing and training requirements. Depending on the program, prerequisites range from a high school diploma to current employment or work experience. Programs are available both in classrooms and online. Courses cover all aspects of the work, ranging from job safety practices to business management and supervisory training. Classes may include:
- Activated sludge microbiology
- Successful management techniques for wastewater personnel
- Environment law
- Industry health and safety
- Wastewater collections systems operation
Certification will enhance an employee's chance of advancement, especially in larger wastewater treatment plants. Occupational options include:
- Wastewater plant operator
- Shift supervisor
- Vocational or technical school instructor
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), employment for wastewater and water treatment plant and system operators is predicted to decline by 5 percent between 2018 and 2028. Population increase, particularly in suburban areas, contributes to this growth. The BLS reported in 2018 that these workers earned $46,780 as a median annual wage.
Certification and Continuing Education
Certification of wastewater operators is required by each state. Certification requirements among states aren't uniform; however, states typically share four levels of wastewater operator certification. Not all states recognize credentials from other states, but meeting the requirements for certification from the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), a national organization, can facilitate moving to another state. The ABC certification for operators, lab analysts, biosolids land appliers and plant maintenance technologists may be earned, in some cases, through reciprocity with other certifying bodies or by exam.
Continuing education courses that help prepare candidates for certification exams are sometimes offered by professional education departments of community colleges and universities. Topics in continuing education courses range from the technical to the business aspects of the profession. Radium removal from drinking water, odor control and management skills are some examples of continuing education subjects that can help prepare candidates for career advancement.
Undergraduate certificates offer a brief overview of the wastewater operations field, while associate's degree programs provide a more comprehensive introduction that also includes general education courses. Graduates can pursue certification, which is mandated by all states.