February 22, 2018

On February 13th, CEO of Idaho Rural Water Association, Shelley Roberts, updated Idaho’s Senate Education Committee about Idaho’s water and wastewater apprenticeship program and how it will enhance Idaho’s work based learning efforts in Idaho. Her full testimony can be found below:

Thank you Senator Mortimer. My name is Shelley Roberts. I am CEO of Idaho Rural Water Association. Our non-profit organization is an association of over 350 public and private drinking water and wastewater systems throughout Idaho. Our members include municipalities, home owners association and private industry like food processing manufacturers. We appreciate the opportunity to share our experience working with the Workforce Development Council, CTE and the Dept of Labor in developing a viable apprenticeship program to attract new workers into the industry and to provide an avenue to get these new workers the training, experience and licensing needed to continue to provide clean, safe drinking water to Idaho’s communities.

Similar to many industries, the water and wastewater industry is facing a shortage of workers due to job growth and the retirement of the baby boomers. However, Idaho’s statistic in our industry is even worse than the national average. In 2016, 33% of Idaho’s licensed operators was over 55 years of age. Another 29% were over age 45. That is over 60% of the licensed operators in Idaho being over age 45. Field staff reporting retirement announcements on a regular basis. Unfortunately illnesses and even a death has been a common report in the last two years.

Many citizens and community leaders do not realize the time, knowledge and commitment needed to obtain the proper licensing to ensure our communities have access to clean, safe drinking water. It takes years of field experience as well as education to obtain the proper knowledge and licensure to properly operate a water or wastewater utility. In addition, recent advancements in water treatment and supply technology have increased the skills and training needed to protect public health and the environment. The combination of on the job training and classroom education make the registered apprenticeship program an excellent fit.

Much of the theory, chemistry and mathematical concepts are best learned in the classroom. However, there is also knowledge to be gained from working in the field that cannot be gained from the classroom alone. For example, tasks like water line inspection, troubleshooting mechanical equipment and heavy equipment excavation are more likely to be mastered in the field than in the classroom. These are just a few examples of the skills and knowledge that make the apprenticeship program a good fit for our industry.

One reason we wanted to work with the education department was to coordinate classroom training amongst all or most of Idaho’s community colleges. We represent membership statewide so introducing a program in one geographic area limited the availability of the program to all of Idaho’s communities. In addition, there was a need to attract workers at a very young age. We hope Idaho’s junior high and high school career counselors will help with recruitment since most graduating high school students do not recognize water and wastewater operations as a field despite the industry’s importance to public health.

We also see opportunities to partner with the Department of Labor to appeal to veterans that may have access to training and educational funds. It is common for military veterans to have experience maintaining drinking water and wastewater facilities so this provides another avenue to bring additional workers into the industry. Another DOL program that has been utilized by our members/Idaho’s communities in the past is the On-the-Job Training Programs. The benefit of DOLs ‘registered’ apprenticeship program helps ensure the quality of education and training being provided.

It was important for us to consider coordination and support of this program with the licensing board for water and wastewater professionals. To be sure the program was successful there needed to be a clear pathway from the apprenticeship program into the occupation. In order to do this we needed to be sure the licensing standards were aligned with the apprenticeship program criteria. We are in the process of working through any changes that may need considered for licensure rule changes with the current board and will be presenting those changes to the 2019 legislature.

Our work with CTE and the Department of Labor assisted us in identifying a stakeholder group that was represented by both industry and public entities. CTE facilitated the process of working with the stakeholder group to identify the ideal length of the program, goals of the program and the critical need to know criteria for the apprenticeship program. CTE has guided us through the process of creating a successful program from the very beginning and we look forward to rolling out the program in the coming months.

Bill Kober with the Dept of Labor has provided valuable insight into the apprenticeship program and has been an excellent resource for us through this process.

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