BY Andrew Chastain-Howley

Let’s face it, working at a wastewater treatment plant is not a sexy occupation — there is generally no surplus of applicants. There are fewer people actively coming into the industry, and many who are “lifers” are reaching retirement age. As is the case in most industries, the workforce is aging, but computer systems, processes and data requirements are also evolving. Wastewater treatment, however, is often the last on the list to receive this new technology.

Those coming into the industry today are entering at a time where there’s a transition taking place. The adage of “Out with the old and in with the new” is happening before everyone’s eyes. Automated monitoring and other efficient systems are becoming standardized across various utility operations and has, likewise, become a need for wastewater as well.

The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized two trends: not only are there not enough people seeking jobs in the wastewater treatment industry, there’s also an increasing demand on the infrastructure as the population increases. “By 2032, it is expected that 56 million more people [in the United States] will connect to centralized treatment plants, rather than private septic systems – a 23% increase in demand,” (EPA, 2016).

So, the challenge becomes, how do both fewer new treatment operators entering the workforce, and the existing tenured operator who has adapted to legacy systems, manage the plant systems and data during this evolution? Here are a few ideas.

 

Automate monitoring and offer a visual dashboard with remote access. This replaces having a specific staff person for every area of expertise on site. Using remote access dashboards gives utilities a way to obtain subject matter expertise from around the world. For example, an expert in Australia could be asked to view the process happening in a remote treatment facility located in another part of the world. The dashboards allow permissions to an external advisor so they can see everything remotely and offer advice.

These solutions allow individuals at a treatment plant to do more with their time. Instead of constantly organizing and analyzing the data, they only need to do it once and let automation to do the rest. Then technicians and operators can focus on troubleshooting new issues and more effectively running the plant. Using this type of monitoring solution may also reduce the licensed operator requirements in some states.

 

Offer a knowledge sharing platform. Not every tenured operator has the time to pass knowledge down to the next generation. With the current demographics, the time available to pass on this knowledge is decreasing and it is becoming a priority. Issues recording and management programs that allow knowledge capture and transfer of all the issues and how they’ve been managed is hugely important in the current environment.

 

Addressing the aging workforce at water treatment plants is essential. Learn more about tools available today to help automate monitoring and support the knowledge transfer of staff.


Andrew Chastain-Howley

Andrew Chastain-Howley leads data analytics solution development for water and wastewater systems at Atonix Digital. He has more than 27 years’ experience in the fields of water resources and asset management including: smart integrated infrastructure, treatment plant monitoring, distribution system optimization, and advanced metering infrastructure. In addition to formal training at the University of St. Andrews, and Cranfield University, his professional background includes work in the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and North America, for numerous government agencies, and private concerns.

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