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Idaho seeks apprentices for maintaining sewer, water systems

May 28, 2019

Safe, plentiful and affordable drinking water, environmentally sound wastewater treatment, and the people who maintain the systems are some of Idaho’s most precious resources and something many people take for granted.

“We are encouraging our 120 members to plan for the future,” said Kelsie Cole, apprenticeship coordinator for the Idaho Rural Water Association. “More than half the professionals who oversee or operate Idaho’s drinking water and wastewater facilities are within 10 years or less of retirement. One-third are more than 55 years old. Another 30 percent are over age 45.”

Cole’s job is to meet the demand for future operators by pairing quality job candidates with a new statewide apprenticeship program involving 120 Idaho cities and communities that operate drinking water and wastewater systems throughout the state.

The association is using a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to recruit job candidates interested in a career managing Idaho’s drinking water or wastewater systems. What they need is more Idaho cities and communities willing to step up and offer the on-the-job training component of the apprenticeship program.

Six Idaho communities have stepped up so far — the city of Buhl hired two apprentices, and the cities of Carey, Preston, New Plymouth and Grand View each hired one.

The Idaho Rural Water Association wants to sign up a few more communities to participate and hopes to place an additional 35 people in registered apprenticeships.

“Some of our cities say they don’t know where to find people,” Cole said. “We can help them find apprenticeship candidates. People from all walks of life have expressed interest. What we need are more Idaho communities willing to step up and offer the hands-on training and work experience.”

The association’s apprenticeship program includes two years of training for job candidates through paid positions, typically offering a wage of $12 to $20 per hour, depending on location.

Buhl Water Department manager A.J. Gray seized the opportunity to hire apprentices for his community. He also oversees the water systems in Castleford, Hollister and Rogerson and has two quality people on the job.

“They’re both great kids,” Gray said of his apprentices. “When I saw the apprenticeship program come up, I jumped in quickly. It is a great way for kids to get a foot in the door for a promising career. The experience they gain on the job is so valuable — it’s priceless.”

The College of Southern Idaho — a project partner — offers certificate programs in Water Resource Management. The curriculum includes the classroom training necessary for certification in operating wastewater and drinking water systems, Gray said. In remote locations, where a community college is not nearby, apprentices complete the classroom training online.

CSI’s location in nearby Twin Falls works well for the city of Buhl’s apprentices. The city pays the apprentices to work full time and for the time they spend in the CSI classroom.

“CSI’s water resource management program produced 20 graduates last May, and all 20 found a job right out of school,” Gray said.

Garrett Williams, 20, signed up for Buhl’s water apprenticeship opportunity last year. The city of Buhl pays Williams to learn on the job. Once he completes the program, Williams will receive a Level 2 certification in two years instead of three.

“Yeah, it’s an excellent way to get into this field,” William said. “I like being able to go to CSI and not worry about how I’m going to pay for it.”

Once an apprentice completes an apprenticeship, many host companies hire them full time. Nationally, apprenticeship sponsors hire 87 percent of the people who participate in their training programs.

According to John Russ, state apprenticeship coordinator at the Idaho Department of Labor, the number of registered Idaho apprenticeships has doubled in the last two years. Today, these registered apprenticeship programs produce competent, job-ready workers with detailed knowledge, specific skill sets and job proficiency.

Drinking and wastewater systems are complex to manage, Cole pointed out, and they require a great deal of experience and expertise to maintain 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Communities that run drinking water and wastewater systems need to plan ahead to ensure they can train qualified people to keep their systems running.

“It takes years of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the skills, knowledge and licensure to properly operate a drinking water or wastewater utility,” Cole said. “New advancements in water treatment and supply technology increase the skills and training necessary for protecting public health and the environment. A combination of on-the-job training and classroom education makes the registered apprenticeship program an excellent fit for our industry.”

According to Russ, the Association’s apprenticeship program is a great opportunity for job seekers interested in a career protecting Idaho’s environment and water. Apprenticeships can lead to a long-term job in an industry that generally pays well and has a history of employees who work there for many years or even decades.

“Sponsored apprenticeships are good for rural Idaho,” Russ said. “They allow Idahoans to work in scenic mountain locations where good-paying jobs are not always easy to find.”

“It’s a gateway to a great career,” Cole said.

At a minimum, Cole said applicants need a high school degree or equivalent to participate in the association’s program, which includes 288 hours of classroom instruction and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training to become a certified journey-level operations specialist.

Successful candidates are responsible for finding their own housing. Those with military experience can use the GI bill to help with housing costs.

Businesses that wish to sponsor a registered apprentice should visit ApprenticeshipIdaho.gov or contact Russ at 208-332-3570 x 3303 or john.russ@labor.idaho.gov.

Idaho cities, counties and job seekers interested in Idaho Rural Water Association’s apprenticeship program should contact Cole at 208-343-7001 or kcole@idahoruralwater.com or visit idahoruralwater.com.

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