In Pennsylvania, there is growing concern about the number of water-treatment plant operators approaching retirement age and the shortage in personnel that will result. This trend was predicted in 2015 in a report by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the report warning that a “scarcity of younger operators and the potential retirement of a large pool of older operators in the coming years may jeopardize the statewide pool of qualified operators.” According to 2015 figures, less than three percent of drinking water and wastewater operators were under the age of 30, and the DEP report highlighted that the number of operators in the state, both wastewater and drinking water, who were approaching retirement age was nearly two-thirds. According to William McKeon, a teacher at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology who instructs prospective operators, there would be an even greater shortage now if it had not been for the recession of 2008-09 which forced many operators to stay on the job instead of retiring. However, now that the economy is better, McKeon believes those operators will retire. Also playing into the large number of retirees is timing: Many personnel who were hired with the modernization of treatment plants as a result of The Clean Water Act are also approaching retirement.
To address the impending shortage, the DEP report suggested establishing more degree programs, and accordingly, the number of courses approved by the DEP went from 1,508 in 2006 to 3,012 in 2016. Unfortunately, that increase has not balanced the loss in operators in that same 10-year period, the state suffering a 17 percent decrease in operator license holders. Much of the problem in attracting people to the industry stems from misconceptions about the job (it’s smelly!) and a lack of understanding that the industry is based on science and pays well. To educate the public, the industry is reaching out through state and national job fairs and targeting high school students through site tours and information session; the hope is to appeal to people who may want a hands-on career but are unaware of jobs related to water treatment.
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