Water and Liquid Waste Treatment Plant and System Operators
- Employment is concentrated in local government and private
water, sewage, and other systems utilities.
- Completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate
program increases an applicant’s chances for employment and
- Because the number of applicants in this field is normally
low, job prospects will be good for qualified individuals, particularly
those with training in all aspects of water and wastewater treatment.
Clean water is essential for everyday life. Water treatment
plant and system operators treat water so that it is safe
to drink. Liquid waste treatment plant and system operators,
also known as wastewater treatment plant and system operators,
remove harmful pollutants from domestic and industrial liquid
waste so that it is safe to return to the environment.
Water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to
water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to
customers. Wastewater travels through customers’ sewer pipes to
wastewater treatment plants, where it is either treated and returned
to streams, rivers, and oceans or reused for irrigation and landscaping.
Operators in both types of plants control equipment and processes
that remove or destroy harmful materials, chemical compounds,
and microorganisms from the water. They also control pumps, valves,
and other equipment that moves the water or wastewater through
the various treatment processes, after which they dispose of the
removed waste materials.
Operators read, interpret, and adjust meters and gauges to make
sure that plant equipment and processes are working properly.
Operators operate chemical-feeding devices, take samples of the
water or wastewater, perform chemical and biological laboratory
analyses, and adjust the amounts of chemicals, such as chlorine,
in the water. They use a variety of instruments to sample and
measure water quality and they utilize common hand and power tools
to make repairs to valves, pumps, and other equipment.
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators increasingly
rely on computers to help monitor equipment, store the results
of sampling, make process-control decisions, schedule and record
maintenance activities, and produce reports. When equipment malfunctions,
operators also may use computers to determine the cause of the
malfunction and seek its solution.
Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. A heavy
rainstorm, for example, may cause large amounts of wastewater
to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s treatment capacity. Emergencies
also can be caused by conditions inside a plant, such as chlorine
gas leaks or oxygen deficiencies. To handle these conditions,
operators are trained to make an emergency management response
and use special safety equipment and procedures to protect public
health and the facility. During these periods, operators may work
under extreme pressure to correct problems as quickly as possible.
Because working conditions may be dangerous, operators must be
The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and
size of the plant. In smaller plants, one operator may control
all of the machinery, perform tests, keep records, handle complaints,
and perform repairs and maintenance. A few operators may handle
both a water treatment and a wastewater treatment plant. In larger
plants with many employees, operators may be more specialized
and monitor only one process. The staff also may include chemists,
engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, helpers, supervisors,
and a superintendent.
Water pollution standards are largely set by two major Federal
environmental statutes: the Clean Water Act, which regulates the
discharge of pollutants, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which
specifies standards for drinking water. Industrial facilities
that send their wastes to municipal treatment plants must meet
certain minimum standards to ensure that the wastes have been
adequately pretreated and will not damage municipal treatment
facilities. Municipal water treatment plants also must meet stringent
standards for drinking water. The list of contaminants regulated
by these statutes has grown over time. As a result, plant operators
must be familiar with the guidelines established by Federal regulations
and how they affect their plant. In addition, operators must be
aware of any guidelines imposed by the State or locality in which
the plant operates.
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work
both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery
and to unpleasant odors. Operators’ work is physically demanding
and often is performed in unclean locations. Operators must pay
close attention to safety procedures because of the presence of
hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases,
and malfunctioning equipment. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7
days a week; therefore, operators work one of three 8-hour shifts,
including weekends and holidays, on a rotational basis. Operators
may be required to work overtime.
|Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
A high school diploma usually is required for an individual to
become a water or wastewater treatment plant operator. Operators
need mechanical aptitude and should be competent in basic mathematics,
chemistry, and biology. They must have the ability to apply data
to formulas prescribing treatment requirements, flow levels, and
concentration levels. Some basic familiarity with computers also
is necessary because of the trend toward computer-controlled equipment
and more sophisticated instrumentation. Certain positions—particularly
in larger cities and towns—are covered by civil service regulations.
Applicants for these positions may be required to pass a written
examination testing their mathematics skills, mechanical aptitude,
and general intelligence.
The completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate
program in water quality and wastewater treatment technology increases
an applicant’s chances for employment and promotion, because plants
are becoming more complex. Offered throughout the country, these
programs provide a good general knowledge of water and wastewater
treatment processes, as well as basic preparation for becoming
Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training
and learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced
operator. They 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 pumps,
electric motors, valves, and other plant equipment. Larger treatment
plants generally combine this on-the-job training with formal
classroom or self-paced study programs.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, enforced by the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, specify national minimum
standards for certification and recertification of operators of
community and nontransient, noncommunity water systems. As a result,
operators must pass an examination certifying that they are capable
of overseeing wastewater treatment plant operations. There are
different levels of certification, depending on the operator’s
experience and training. Higher levels qualify the operator for
overseeing a wider variety of treatment processes. Certification
requirements vary by State and by size of the treatment plant.
Although relocation may mean having to become certified in a new
jurisdiction, many States accept other States’ certifications.
Most State drinking water and water pollution control agencies
offer courses to improve operators’ skills and knowledge. The
courses cover principles of treatment processes and process control,
laboratory procedures, maintenance, management skills, collection
systems, safety, chlorination, sedimentation, biological treatment,
sludge treatment and disposal, and flow measurements. Some operators
take correspondence courses on subjects related to water and wastewater
treatment, and some employers pay part of the tuition for related
college courses in science or engineering.
As operators are promoted, they become responsible for more complex
treatment processes. Some operators are promoted to plant supervisor
or superintendent; others advance by transferring to a larger
facility. Postsecondary training in water and wastewater treatment,
coupled with increasingly responsible experience as an operator,
may be sufficient to qualify a worker for becoming superintendent
of a small plant, where a superintendent also serves as an operator.
However, educational requirements are rising as larger, more complex
treatment plants are built to meet new drinking water and water
pollution control standards. With each promotion, the operator
must have greater knowledge of Federal, State, and local regulations.
Superintendents of large plants generally need an engineering
or science degree.
A few operators get jobs as technicians with State drinking water
or water pollution control agencies. In that capacity, they monitor
and provide technical assistance to plants throughout the State.
Vocational-technical school or community college training generally
is preferred for technician jobs. Experienced operators may transfer
to related jobs with industrial liquid waste treatment plants,
water or liquid waste treatment equipment and chemical companies,
engineering consulting firms, or vocational-technical schools.
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators held
about 94,000 jobs in 2004. Almost 4 in 5 operators worked for
local governments. Others worked primarily for private water,
sewage, and other systems utilities and for private waste treatment
and disposal and waste management services companies. Private
firms are increasingly providing operation and management services
to local governments on a contract basis.
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators were
employed throughout the country, but most jobs were in larger
towns and cities. Although nearly all operators worked full time,
those in small towns may work only part time at the treatment
plant, with the remainder of their time spent handling other municipal
Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system
operators is expected to grow about as fast as average for all
occupations through the year 2014. Job prospects will be good
for qualified individuals because the number of applicants in
this field is normally low, due primarily to the unclean and physically
demanding nature of the work. Workers who have training in all
aspects of water and wastewater treatment and who can handle multiple
duties will have the best opportunities.
The increasing population and the growth of the economy are expected
to boost demand for essential water and wastewater treatment services.
As new plants are constructed to meet this demand, employment
of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators will
increase. In addition, many job openings will occur as experienced
operators leave the labor force or transfer to other occupations.
Local governments are the largest employers of water and wastewater
treatment plant and system operators. However, Federal certification
requirements have increased utilities’ reliance on private firms
specializing in the operation and management of water and wastewater
treatment facilities. As a result, employment in privately owned
facilities will grow faster than the average.
Median annual earnings of water and wastewater treatment plant
and system operators were $34,960 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent
earned between $27,180 and $43,720. The lowest 10 percent earned
less than $21,700, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$53,540. Median annual earnings of water and liquid waste treatment
plant and systems operators in May 2004 were $34,990 in local
government and $32,350 in water, sewage, and other systems.
In addition to their annual salaries, water and wastewater treatment
plant and system operators usually receive benefits that may include
health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and educational
reimbursement for job-related courses.
Other workers whose main activity consists of operating a system
of machinery to process or produce materials include chemical
plant and system operators; gas plant operators; petroleum pump
system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers; power plant
operators, distributors, and dispatchers; and stationary engineers
and boiler operators.
|Sources of Additional Information
For information on employment opportunities, contact State or
local water pollution control agencies, State water and liquid
waste operator associations, State environmental training centers,
or local offices of the State employment service.
For information on certification, contact:
For educational information related to a career as a water or
liquid waste treatment plant and system operator, contact:
- American Water Works Association, 6666 West Quincy Ave., Denver,
CO 80235. Internet: http://www.awwa.org/
- Water Environment Federation, 601 Wythe St., Alexandria, VA
22314-1994. Internet: http://www.wef.org/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition