Training programs a big step toward filling a need for water, wastewater operators

Published 5:02 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Southern Minnesota and local officials, along with elected officials, took a victory lap Monday afternoon to further hype the benefits that two new training programs for water and wastewater operators will offer.

In the 2024 session, the Legislature appropriated $350,000 over the course of three years to create a program through Riverland Community College to train water facility and wastewater facility operators, which will be administered by the City of Austin as the fiscal operator.

It marked the end of a process that actually started several years ago, but really got its bearings in this last session through bills authored and supported by Sen. John Jasinski (District 19) and Rep. Patricia Mueller (District 23B). It also gained heavy support from Sen. Gene Dornink (District 23). 

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All three were honored by the Southeastern Minnesota League of Municipalities, which spearheaded the effort on the ground, organizing over 60 southern Minnesota municipalities to back the training program.

“We want to have cities engaged and excited about this,” said Brenda Johnson, SEMLM executive director.

The work to organize the programs began as an answer to a shortage of water facility and wastewater facility operators experienced throughout the whole of southern Minnesota, as well as training opportunities. 

There was an overall recognition of the need for such a program, but early efforts failed to come together.

“The first couple years, we didn’t have a real good run at it because we weren’t really organized around it,” said Mayor Steve King. “Through the Southeastern Minnesota League of Municipalities and Brenda Johnson’s work, she organized 60 plus cities to ask, ‘what’s your need?’ The need is there and we’re excited to get it going.”

Helping bring that reality home was Austin’s first-hand experience in its own Wastewater Treatment Plant project, which costs just north of $100 million. Having that experience made selling this bipartisan-supported project easier to sell.

“When I testified at the legislature, I can say first hand, I get the complexity of running the wastewater treatment plant,” King said. “I was able to speak to the requirements the state puts on our water and our wastewater operators that requires us to have better licensure, better educated employees.”

That’s something Johnson highlighted as a benefit Monday afternoon.

“They are serving the entire community,” she said. “We’re creating a larger pool for water and wastewater operators in southern Minnesota.”

Creation of the programs will be organized by following training guidelines from state agencies including the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) for water facilities and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for wastewater facilities.

An advisory committee will also be formed to help with the process and as the process to organize the programs progresses, curriculum developers will be hired to guide the training.

However, according to Peggy Young, from RCC’s Customized Training program, efforts will also include making sure there are internship sites lined up for the number of participants in the program as well as site visits.

“Once we have those pieces locked in, then we can really work with curriculum developers,” Young said, adding that work will also begin on marketing materials, timelines for classes and coursework that will align in-person and online training.

While the money allocated by the legislature will pay for the formation of the programs, the cities themselves will still pay for the training.

Young anticipates that classes will start before the three years is up and that they will include different levels of training to meet prospective participants where they are.

“We anticipate having an entry level program for the student who has zero experience whatsoever and then not necessarily intermediate level, but something above the experience working in the water and wastewater world, but not necessarily enough to test out of that first licensure,” Young said. “They don’t have to go through every piece of it.”

Overall, the training programs have three components, including bringing training closer to home in southern Minnesota, increasing recruitment and bringing in more partners.

Already, that list of partners includes Riverland, workforce centers throughout this part of the state, local state legislators, Austin, MDH and MPCA and SEMLM. 

All involved were excited Monday about the prospect of increasing the pool of trained operators.

“It is really exciting,” Young said. “I’m so looking forward to it. It’s fun to be a part of a program that gets straight to the meat of what people need to do to move into a career.”