Flipping the Script

My son and I loved the Karate Kid movies growing up, and I’m now a big fan of the sequel series, “Cobra Kai”. One of my favorite scenes was when the raw and insensitive Sensei Lawrence told Eli Moscowitz that if he wanted to change perceptions of him, he needed to “flip the script”.  That message transformed the meek Eli, who suffered from bullying due to his physical imperfection, into the emboldened “Hawk”.   Despite all our collective efforts, I still think that WWOA has yet to successfully “flip” its own script.  There was an attempt six years ago to change the name of WWOA to convert “waste water operator” to “water resource recovery specialist” that failed.  That misfire may have at least partly been due to a general resistance to change, particularly from long-tenured members, who openly (and deservedly) take pride in their profession as it is named.  Perhaps the concept was correct, but the timing and delivery not optimal.

Still, we more than ever need to flip the script.  We need to remove the branding that wastewater operators simply “process poop” all day and instead instill the vision that our industry is science and technology to treat and reuse wastewater, putting it back better than it was, and improve existing river/stream quality at the discharge. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the buzz word in educational curricula today, and STEM is precisely what wastewater treatment is all about.  We need to get that information directed at high school guidance counselors across the state and the nation.

We have a problem filling vacancies.  It gets more and more difficult to replace retiring baby boomers.  I frequently hear that facilities resort to hiring individuals with no or minimal parallel work experience in the hope that they can teach them the trade and manage to retain them as an employee.  A number of years back, Wisconsin’s Act 10 was seen to be an assault on unions, and many smaller municipalities saw this as a perfect opportunity to save money by reducing wages and stripping benefits from jobs such as wastewater operators.   Our industry is facing a time of reckoning when a job flipping burgers pays more—with benefits—than the critical job of processing our wastewater.  That script desperately needs to be flipped.

We need to convince municipal leaders and water utility commissioners of the value of wastewater operators and improve wages and benefits across the state and nation.  Certainly, that already exists in our larger municipalities, but it remains a problem to be addressed in our smaller locales.  No one is going to want to work for under $16.00 per hour with little or no benefits. That math doesn’t work.

We also need to entice young people to view wastewater treatment as the well-paid, rewarding, challenging, and recession-proof occupation that it is.  To that end, Board member Ben Brooks has been working to develop a Young Professionals group as part of his Career Development Committee.  He gathered some young folks at the 2021 conference and they got to see wastewater from a whole different perspective.  We need to continually expand that group.

Education is not only at the core of WWOA’s mission, but it is also vital to attracting and retaining young people.  In keeping with that we need to continually advance WWOA’s scholarship and tuition aid opportunities.  Former Board member Sue Leith made great strides with attracting scholarship candidates and current Board member Jenny Pagel has taken that ball and convincingly moved it towards the goal line.  Jenny managed to attract 16 excellent scholarship candidates in 2021! Unfortunately, WWOA only has a total of four scholarships to offer.

That level of application success led to the Board discussing both the number and value of scholarships WWOA offers.  Historically, WWOA has offered three $1,000 scholarships (one funded by Crane Engineering).  In addition, North Central Labs funds a $5,000 scholarship over two years.  WWOA’s own funding commitment to scholarships represents less than 1% of our annual gross revenues.  That seems incredibly low given that education is part of the WWOA’s foundation. Subsequently, the Board voted last December to increase our scholarships to $2,000 each (and Crane has generously agreed to match that with their funded scholarship) for 2022.  I believe that we can do more, and would like to see WWOA offer more scholarship opportunities.  We also would welcome additional scholarships funded by industry manufacturers and contractors, like the incredible scholarship offered by Mike Raynovic of North Central Labs.

WWOA has historically budgeted for up to six tuition aid awards of $250 to help operators pay for training and classes to further their own education or advance their careers.  Sadly, I’m not aware of a single request for these opportunities in the past five years.   Consequently, for 2022, the Board voted to approve changes to tuition aid opportunities to include $1000 toward a for-credit program of study related to wastewater treatment at an accredited technical college or university.  The second type of tuition aid offered is a $100 award to be used for a training seminar or to offset the cost of Operator certification exam fees.

Flipping our script is going to require significant change.  We need to focus on attracting young people to the wastewater profession and encouraging them to obtain the education that is necessary for them to envision our industry beyond the headwaters and redirect their focus to our end-product: the clean waters and appreciative wildlife at the outfall.

Change of any kind can be unsettling. But change is necessary in order to move forward.  We need to focus on what gains we can achieve rather than what we believe we might be losing.  Yes, change is difficult, and sometimes met with fear.  But, as Bill Gates is quoted, “People feared electricity when it was invented.”  We may face many changes down the road, but change is how we move forward. Time moves forward, and so must we.  Change for WWOA begins with flipping the script.

Back to the Listing