Wastewater Jobs: Roles, Responsibilities, and Benefits

Wastewater jobs safeguard public health, preserve the environment, and sustain the quality of life we often take for granted.

We’re fortunate to live in a society where the water we send down the drain goes to a wastewater plant to be cleaned before it returns to the environment. In our daily lives, it’s easy to overlook the critical role of wastewater treatment, yet we owe our quality of life to wastewater treatment and the workers who keep the system in order. In fact, water and wastewater jobs are on the Reader’s Digest list of 10 Jobs American’s Can’t Live Without.

Wastewater workers perform essential duties, have stable jobs, and receive great benefits. In this article, we’ll look at the responsibilities, job requirements, and benefits of wastewater careers.

Types of Wastewater Jobs

Plant Operator

Wastewater plant operators monitor the plant and access the treatment systems to make sure they are operating as expected. Plant operators look at water samples, readings, and outputs from different parts of the treatment process to evaluate if the whole system is working effectively to clean the water.

Plant operators do not need a college degree, but they must meet certification requirements. In Illinois, there are four certification classes for wastewater plant operators—the lowest being Class 4 and the highest being Class 1. The higher the class the more responsibility the plant operators have.

Lead Operator

Every wastewater plant treating and discharging 1 million gallons of water or more needs to have a Class 1 operator. The Class 1 operator is generally responsible for the plant’s overall operation. They make sure the plant is operating perfectly and that the effluent meets the standard of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). A Class 1 operator’s job title is usually Lead Operator or Wastewater Superintendent if they oversee multiple plants.

General Maintenance (also Maintenance I or Laborer I)

To be eligible for Class 4 certification, you need one year of hands-on experience at a wastewater treatment plant. Usually that experience is gained working in a maintenance position at the plant. While plant operators work to ensure the entire plant is running smoothly, maintenance workers are focused on maintaining individual pieces of the treatment process.

Pump Maintenance

Pumps are crucial infrastructure at a wastewater plant and need to work well to move water through the treatment process. Wastewater plants employ more specialized maintenance workers who maintain, replace, and upgrade pumps.

Lab Technician

Wastewater plant operators need to make sure treated wastewater meets IEPA’s requirements before discharging effluent to a waterway—and that’s where lab technicians come in. A lab technician takes samples from different steps of treatment to make sure the plant is on track with IEPA’s standards. Lab technicians must be detail-oriented to perform tests and take sample readings with precision.

SCADA Technician

A relatively new position for wastewater plants, a SCADA (or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) technician uses technology to improve the operation of a wastewater plant. SCADA is a network of monitors and computer systems that can ultimately make a wastewater plant more efficient and dependable. A SCADA technician operates this network and can essentially run the plant remotely. These individuals must be tech-savvy and understand computer systems. They might come into this position with IT and programming skills or learn on the job.

Required Education or Certification for Wastewater Careers

While none of these roles requires a college diploma, some coursework can be helpful. Formal coursework can count toward the experience requirements for plant operator certification. For example, 3 months of wastewater courses and 6 months of on-the-job experience can qualify you for a Class 4 operator certification. Compare this to the 1 year of on-the-job experience it would take without coursework.

To receive operator certification, eligible workers must pass an exam for each operator classification. Joliet Junior College offers professional development courses that help prepare for these exams. Find specific requirements for wastewater operator certification on the IEPA’s website.

Wastewater Job Benefits

Municipal wastewater employees receive top-notch benefits. Benefits vary by municipality but may include:

  • Enrollment in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF). When you work a certain number of years (this number varies by plan) in an IMRF-eligible position, you are guaranteed an IMRF pension for life.
  • Union representation and protection.
  • Medical, dental, and vision insurance—sometimes completely covered by a municipal employer
  • Budget for professional development like training, seminars, or coursework
  • Assurance of a steady job—wastewater treatment is a necessary service, and wastewater flows to plants at a predictable rate, so there are no ups and downs of employment.

Local Support for Wastewater Careers

We can’t live without wastewater jobs, but there are more open positions than workers to fill those roles. Fortunately, there are municipalities that see the urgency of attracting young people to wastewater positions. One such municipality is the City of Lockport. They actively reach out to local students through job fairs, tours, a work release program, internships, and summer jobs. Giving high schoolers and young adults these experiences can help them see the perks of a career in wastewater—including steady work, great benefits, and service to the community—all without having to take on college debt.

Consider a Job in Wastewater

Wastewater treatment workers safeguard public health, preserve the environment, and sustain the quality of life we often take for granted. Our communities need more wastewater workers—and you might be a great fit for one of these positions!

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