USDA Awards $6 Million to Develop a National Apprenticeship Program

DUNCAN, Okla. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded a $6 million grant to NRWA for further development of its National Apprenticeship program. At the 2018 WaterPro Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, Edna Primrose, USDA Assistant Administrator for Rural Development’s Water and Environmental Programs, announced this award to NRWA for workforce development in the water industry that will assist in providing rural America with clean, reliable water resources.

During the USDA Outlook at the WaterPro Conference, Primrose expanded on the NRWA Apprenticeship programs. “Having a highly skilled workforce is a crux for sustainability…This (Apprenticeship program) is important. It’s critical. To have NRWA recognized as a premier training provider, premier operator and premier steward of rural water and wastewater systems will ensure the future of rural America.”

NRWA has prioritized developing a nationwide apprenticeship program to accelerate the process of hiring qualified water and wastewater workers and providing them an identifiable career path. NRWA is collaborating with state and local leaders to establish nationally-recognized and federally sanctioned Registered Apprenticeship programs.

Since its formal launch in 2017, 16 states have registered programs in the NRWA Apprenticeship program, and 12 states are currently working to establish the proper standards and programming to become registered.

With the new funding from USDA, NRWA will have the financial resources to help states develop their own Registered Apprenticeship program under the NRWA Guideline Standards.

Establishing an apprenticeship program for the water and wastewater industry is a massive undertaking and requires adaptation by states to meet their specific needs. NRWA plans to develop standardized forms, reporting templates and educational material to help states with a solid foundation to build upon for their own state-centric apprenticeship program.

The water sector is in the midst of a concentrated retirement bubble and is expected to lose between 30 and 50 percent of its workforce to retirement this decade. Many of the nation’s top water managers started their careers in these entry-level positions and spent a lifetime advancing their skills in a nonsystematic method. Over the past 30 years, the complexity of operating a water utility or wastewater system has increased dramatically.

In order to maintain the level of expertise and service that the public has become accustomed to, NRWA implemented this apprenticeship program to enhance the quality of life, create jobs and promote economic development opportunities in Rural America while improving water and wastewater infrastructure.

Currently, a typical new water worker comes from haphazard on-the-job training and classroom instruction primarily focused on differing state certification requirements. Many of these workers are considered as low-skilled and earn minimum wage.

This program will focus on technology and innovation to provide the next generation of water industry workforce with the knowledge and expertise they need to help ensure clean and safe water for their small communities and to maintain infrastructure necessary to keep their service areas economically viable.

The water industry is unique in that it involves the daily responsibilities of public health protection through the operations and maintenance of critical but unseen infrastructure.

“The apprenticeship program has presented those in our industry with a tremendously powerful tool to advance the level of expertise of critical to quality water,” stated Bryan Klein, general manager from Steuben Lakes Regional Waste District.

Apprenticeship is the most practical and efficient method to jumpstart a career in the water industry. The NRWA Guideline Standards will provide a systematic program and will establish a nationally-recognized credential that certifies proficiency for water workers in Rural America.

The proven earn-while-you-learn model of apprenticeship will enhance workforce participation and retention of water workers in small and rural communities. With student debt at a record high, programs like this present an appealing alternative to college degree programs, with a debt-free path to a well-paying career.

Like most apprenticeship or journeyman programs, the NRWA Apprenticeship Program provides hands-on experience and classroom education so that the apprentice may possibly become a water or wastewater system operations specialist immediately upon completion.

With this program, the public can rest assure that a safe, uninterrupted supply of water will continue, and sound decisions will be made concerning the health and safety in small and rural communities. By its very nature, the water industry places a high degree of personal responsibility and professional ethics on each individual. Like Catlyn Helmuth from Lagrange Utilities said when asked about his apprenticeship, “I’m so excited to start a career in the water/wastewater industry. I know this is forever for me, so I want to be the best.”

NRWA is also looking to attract military veterans or those transitioning out of active duty to this great opportunity for them to continue to serve their communities. According to USDOL, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 370,000 veterans were unemployed in 2017. Men and women who have served their country in the armed forces bring valuable skills and assets with an unyielding work ethic.

“Veterans would be a great resource to tap into for the water and wastewater industry for their attention to detail and instilled discipline. Many have learned the value of work ethic and completing a project correct the first time. My experience in the military taught me that trying to shortcut something generally has dire consequences,” said Randy Seida, manager of West Side Water Supply in Lansing, Michigan and a retired E-5 SGT with the 82nd Airborne Division, 313th Military Intel. “I find that working as a manager of a municipal water utility is similar to my time in the military. We are held accountable for countless lives daily and the smallest mistake can change everything. It takes hard work, discipline and focus in all weather conditions and various environments, sometimes with little to no sleep, to keep your mindset on the task at hand. The attention to detail engrained in service members, under pressure in various circumstances and conditions, is what our industry needs.”

In July 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor certified the NRWA Guideline Standards of Apprenticeship for Water and Wastewater System Operations Specialist which have been registered as part of the National Apprenticeship System in accordance with the standards established by the U.S. Secretary of Labor. These standards include a two-year program that consists of classroom training and on-the-job learning from seasoned water and wastewater professionals.

“This Apprenticeship Program will ensure a well-trained and capable water sector workforce to meet the increasing demands of the water industry,” stated NRWA CEO Sam Wade. “Advancements in water treatment and supply technology have increased the skills and training needed to protect public health and the environment. The program will ensure we have a skilled and educated workforce we need well into the future.”