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Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators salary & career outlook

Safe, clean water -- and the careful handling of wastewater -- is essential to human health, as anyone who has visited a region without this luxury can probably attest. It is no small task, however. Water and wastewater treatment is a complicated, well regulated industry that demands skilled workers, including licensed water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators.

What water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators do

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), it takes a lot of work to get water from reservoirs, streams or other natural sources into our homes, and it is just as difficult to convert wastewater from our drains and sewers into a form that can be safely released into the environment. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators are a key part of these processes. Duties can vary by plant and purpose, but the BLS notes that these professionals often perform the following tasks:

  • Using machines to transfer or treat water or wastewater
  • Inspecting equipment
  • Collecting and conducting tests on water and sewage samples
  • Recording meter readings
  • Cleaning and maintaining equipment
  • Making sure safety standards are met
  • Reviewing all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations

The BLS notes that water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be analytical and detail oriented, especially in such a highly regulated industry. Some of the additional skills required of these professionals -- like math and mechanical skills -- could be mastered either on the job or through water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator training programs and schools, often organized and hosted by large plants.

How to become a water or wastewater treatment plant and system operator

The BLS reports that most water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators have high school diplomas, but customarily receive additional, long-term training on the job. Employees in the training phase may begin as attendants working under the direction of an experienced operator. While formal water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator schools are in short supply, the BLS notes that many larger plants combine on-the-job training with formal classroom instruction. Some operators may have the opportunity to minimize the duration of their training by earning an associate degree in water quality management or water treatment technology. The field's hands-on nature makes it difficult to complete your water and wastewater treatment plant and system education online, but the Internet is a useful tool for reviewing EPA standards and regulations -- an important task for any operator.

According to the BLS, water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must usually be licensed by the state where they work, though requirements vary by state. Most states have four levels of licenses. Each level certifies one to assume more responsibility with less supervision. Generally speaking, operators with the most training or experience usually earn more and have stronger career prospects than their lesser-trained colleagues.

Key water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator salary trends

The BLS (bls.gov, 2012) reports that the national median water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator salary in 2012 was $42,760 with the bottom 10 percent earning up to $25,850 and the top 10 percent earning $67,810 or more.

Though most water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators perform similar duties, there are actually a number of industries that employ these professionals, and some pay more than others. According to the BLS, the following industries reported the highest national mean water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator salaries in 2012:

  • Metal Ore Mining: $65,420
  • State Government: $64,400
  • Scientific Research and Development Services: $62,110

Location can also influence earnings. For instance, the BLS reports that the following states offered the highest mean waste and wastewater treatment plant and system operator salaries in 2012:

  • California: $64,400
  • District of Columbia: $57,870
  • Washington: $56.690

Career outlook for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators

According to the BLS, employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2010 and 2020. A growing population with greater demand for water treatment services will contribute to this growth. New plants will be built and existing plants will be expanded, and employers may need more operators to work them.

Just as with earnings, where you live can influence your employment potential. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's CareerOneStop (careerinfonet.org, 2012), the following states project the fastest employment growth for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators between 2010 and 2020:

  • New Mexico: 48 percent
  • Utah: 38 percent
  • Idaho: 34 percent

Operators are unlikely to get very far -- wherever they settle -- without the right training. We recommend researching a number of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator educational and on-the-job training programs to find the right path for you.