Perception is everything…and our perception needs improvement

I wish I could say that I coined the phrase, “Perception is everything”.  Actually, the concept traces back to the early 1700’s and a French novelist known most for the novel “Madame Bovary”.  His original quote, which has since been edited, was, “There is no truth. There is only perception.” That philosophy is the basis of his famous novel, as Madame Bovary works diligently to be perceived as someone completely different from who she really is and where she comes from.  And, when I think about the wastewater industry, that quote, or some version of it, often comes to mind.  In our case, we are not intent on deceiving, but actually presenting the true reality.

Honestly, I’ve never read the book or seen the movie Madame Bovary (and don’t plan to) because it’s not my cup of tea.  But that quote is relevant because it hits home.  Wastewater treatment is simply perceived so very differently from what it really is.  And, as it stands, it doesn’t matter what we know it to be, because the general public sees wastewater treatment as something simply unmentionable.  And by association, working with it must also be something not to be discussed.  And because of that, it’s difficult to entice the millennial generation to seek out a wastewater career.  It’s getting harder and harder to fill wastewater positions with people that understand and want to be involved.  Even enrollment in 2-year schools offering an Associate degree in wastewater operation are facing declining enrollment.  Why work in wastewater when you can flip burgers for $15/hour?  I even recently saw that our local T-Mobile pays $20/hour plus benefits to sell you phones that you go there specifically to buy anyway.  But pay equity is an issue for another day.

Ask anyone in the general public about wastewater, and I’m betting that you’ll either hear them say that it’s disgusting or they’ll comment about their ever-rising sewer rates.  They never give a moment’s hesitation to think that THEY are contributing to the “disgusting” waste or that sewer rates largely rise in response to tighter wastewater regulations or increases in community size that demand significant plant upgrades.  We get a bad rap.  To some extent, of course, people simply don’t give a thought of water going down drains until a problem occurs and things back up.

Somehow, we need the public to understand that operators use amazing science and technology to successfully treat all the water from kitchens, bathrooms, and industries making our receiving waters cleaner than they were to begin with.  But to the outside world, perception is reality, and the average person on the street does not view wastewater treatment in a positive light.  To flip that script, and get young people interested in our industry, we need the perception to change.   We need to get people to better understand what it is that we do.

Before anyone presses the panic button, let me be clear that I’m not leading up to suggesting a change to the name of the organization, although that may eventually happen.  Not me…I saw that movie once and it doesn’t end well.  What I am saying is that we need to do more than just put “lipstick on the pig” to make wastewater treatment more palatable as a career.  We don’t have to change who we are; we merely need to change how the public perceives us and our industry.  Change the perception to reflect the TRUE reality of what you do.  We need people to know that, contrary to what some (many?) believe, wastewater treatment is NOT just slogging through sewage in waders all day.  Sure, on occasion, things happen, and that becomes part of the job, but that’s only a very small part of what wastewater operators do. 

Wastewater treatment is Science, specifically (micro)biology, relying on a cultivated population of microorganisms to effectively transform waste.  More advanced treatment involves chemistry to specifically remove the nutrients such as phosphorus that cause algal outbreaks and reduce the quality of receiving waters.  Using more science, most facilities have an on-site laboratory to perform daily testing to ensure that the treatment process is properly controlled and optimized.   During treatment, the BOD (which estimates the amount of waste) is typically reduced by well over 95%!

Wastewater treatment is Technology…allowing operators to make adjustments to the treatment process on the fly.  Much of the operational system is part of a complex electronic network that allows operators to control aspects of the system with only their cellphone.  What phone-obsessed millennial wouldn’t be interested in that?

Wastewater treatment is Engineering.  There’s an immense collection system that needs to be monitored and maintained, even using remote camera technology to inspect the system.  The system needs to be designed to ensure adequate hydraulic retention time, and we need an intricate electronic system to control the multitude of moving parts in the system.   It’s engineering to provide an oxygen-rich mixing system to fuel our microorganisms so they can do their job and compartmentalization to allow other treatment process stages to occur

And, finally, wastewater treatment is Math… equations and calculations using process control parameters measured in the on-site laboratory to determine what adjustments need to be made to maximize treatment efficiency.   All of these things are at the heart of the new buzzword in education—STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  So why aren’t our school guidance counselors actively engaged in suggesting wastewater treatment as a viable career path?  Because they do not understand the detailed reality of what you do.

Realistically, I’d argue that a more appropriate job description is that wastewater operators biologically remediate the wastewater they receive from community residences and industries using a wealth of technology.   Given all that, a case could be made that operators more accurately function as bio-remediation technologists.  If janitors can be “custodial engineers”, why can’t wastewater operators be “bio-remediation technologists”?

We need the public to understand that our industry actually makes the receiving waters that we discharge to cleaner than the water upstream of the discharge point.  It’s no secret that back in the 1970’s, the Fox River fishery was virtually dead.  With advancements in wastewater treatment, today the Fox river is a renowned walleye fishery.  The biosolids left after treatment provide valuable nutrients which are applied to farm fields across the nation.  How many students and educators know about that?

Water is perhaps our nation’s most precious resources.  While Wisconsin has a rich resource of groundwater, many regions in our country are suffering from a huge reduction in available drinking water.  They don’t have the volume or quality of groundwater that we do.  California and much of the west rely on reservoirs fed by snowmelt from mountains many miles away, and that source has slowly diminished over time as our climate changes.   Particularly in the southwest, water supply reservoirs are drying up and slowly, but inevitably, communities are being forced to turn to use our very own treated wastewater as a drinking water source.  Today, more than four million Americans in Atlanta, Northern Virginia, Phoenix, Southern California, and even Dallas and El Paso, Texas, get some or all of their drinking water from treated wastewater.  Our treatment is that good, and we should be deservedly proud of that.  But again…who is hyping that?

Adjusting the perception to more closely match reality is all in the packaging.  We can simply offer a position as a wastewater operator, or we can advertise an opportunity to get in on an exciting career in bio-chemical remediation using advanced technology to improve the recreational waters of the great state of Wisconsin.  It’s also a job available in most municipalities, a virtually recession-proof occupation that does not require a degree (although it is helpful), and offers an excellent wage with great benefits (at least in most municipalities).  Lastly, it’s one of the few occupations that still provide a pension.  Which of those two choices would you be more inclined to pursue?

Again, I am NOT advocating a name/title change.  But I’m asking that you at least consider how the perception of wastewater treatment can be changed by re-defining the role of a wastewater operator.  Say you are at a party and are asked what you do for a living.  You could say that you are a wastewater operator, and in at least some (if not many) cases, you get a nice smile and that ends that conversation.  But what if instead you said that you are involved in the “Bio-remediation Technology” business?  That just sounds…intriguing…something someone wants to know more about.  And yet, it’s the truth.  It’s the reality, but from a slightly different perspective.   But to get there, we have to make our reality the public’s perception of the wastewater treatment field.  The world and its perception of us is not going to change for us; we need to change the world.

As this issue of the Clarifier hits your mailbox, we will be into the wonderful summer season.  Jimmy Buffett will be back at Alpine Valley in late July, and I’ll be ready.  Take some time while enjoying the weather and think about all the incredible things that you have experienced in your jobs.  Talk it up.  Offer to speak at school career days next fall.  Get the truth out.  Changing the perception of what we do and making it an attractive career choice is up to all of us.

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