Q: What is your industry experience and background?
Bret Kadel: I have about 25 years of experience in the industry, primarily in water treatment and water distribution. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked for a multitude of agencies, utilities, municipalities and cities. I’ve worked as a contractor and as a training instructor. The last major city that I worked for was El Monte, where I was the utility director. I’ve managed very large distribution and treatment systems for Elsinore Valley (WESA) and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that has a plant that can treat 600 million gallons of water a day.
At WaterWorkforce, we are focused on working on several levels with water utilities that include water treatment, water distribution and, more recently, wastewater. We currently work with the cities of Lynwood and El Monte as well as several private clients in the Ojai area and in San Bernardino.
Q: What are some of the most pressing issues facing the water and wastewater industries?
Kadel: Over the last 10 years there has been a dearth of plant operators. There just isn’t a pool of certified plant operators that water utilities and municipalities can draw from. Exacerbating the problem is an overall lack of effective succession planning within the industry. Additionally, COVID had a major impact on the pipeline of trained and certified candidates. For 18 to 24 months, people weren’t going to school or taking certification exams, which made the problem that much worse.
As you can imagine, our clients are having a hard time replacing staff that leaves the industry or retires. Often, they resort to trying to recruit staff away from other facilities, which is not a feasible long-term solution. The problem is even more difficult if you operate in a city or region where the cost of living is high. The average salary for a plant operator may not be sufficient to attract new hires to the San Francisco Bay Area, for example. We are exploring new ways to help clients with these problems.
Q: What are some of the innovative solutions you are exploring to help your clients address these industry-wide problems?
Kadel: Using my license, I can oversee several wastewater treatment and distribution systems remotely. For these clients, I can act as chief plant operator. This allows me to manage many aspects of the plant, helping with regulations and water quality reporting, among many other things. This alleviates some of the challenges they face in terms of having a licensed operator on staff.
Another solution is to consolidate services. There are cities and municipalities that can literally share services related to water quality and regulatory compliance, among others. By consolidating services, they reduce the pressure to find and hire the qualified operators they need. For example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the largest supplier of treated water in the United States — has many aspects of their massive distribution system overseen remotely by three or four licensed operators. This is a solution that small and medium-sized systems can take advantage of. Furthermore, the industry has the technology to make this happen. Most of these plants have supervisory control and data acquisition systems (SCADA), which allow operators to monitor and mitigate many things remotely. We consult with many cities and municipalities on such strategies that address the challenges they face.
I think developing centralized control rooms with SCADA running on a centralized server is the way forward for the industry. This way you can have someone that manages alarms and many aspects of plant oversight that can be accomplished remotely. But if you really need someone to be on-site because there’s something you can’t fix on SCADA, you call an operator from a standby list and have them go to the plant to address the problem. That’s where our staffing solutions come into play for our clients.
We are currently partnering with a company called XiO. They provide cloud-based SCADA solutions that make it easy to identify plant problems and quickly resolve them. Additionally, they make it possible to connect the systems of various districts and municipalities, which enables a team of chief operators, people with the highest grades in California, to take shifts in a control room and manage multiple systems 24/7.
We’re one of XiO’s primary integrators. We help install and integrate their cloud-based SCADA systems. The goal of our partnership is to leverage each other’s unique and deep expertise to arrive at a product that the industry will embrace — from smaller water systems to the largest.
Q: What other services do you offer?
Kadel: WaterWorkforce provides three main services: staffing, plant management/consulting and training. Our staffing division provides utilities and municipalities with temporary and direct-hire employees. We have an extensive network of operators from which we can find the right fit for our clients. For example, a client has an employee out on sick leave, or they have a gap between when someone leaves and when somebody is hired. Most utilities on their own typically take between six and 12 months to find a new employee. We can help them quickly find a temporary employee or a permanent direct hire.
We also provide full-service utility/plant management. In these cases, we typically work on a long-term contract and facilitate all operations for the client, including system compliance, regulatory oversight and reporting, water quality sampling, capital improvement planning (CIPS) projects, assistance with budgets and SCADA integration.
On the training side, we provide operators with the training for continuing education units (CEUs) that are required by the state as well as prep courses for the certification exam administered by the State Water Resource Control Board. We have been training operators for the industry since 2016.
Q: WaterWorkforce is also planning to launch an apprenticeship program?
Kadel: Yes. Our apprenticeship program—which will launch in January of 2024—has two phases: a five-week intensive pre-apprenticeship certificate program that we developed in collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona and a registered apprenticeship that is approved by the Department of Labor.
Once a student completes the pre-apprenticeship certificate program, they are placed through WaterWorkforce with a Work Partner as a contracted apprentice. The duration of the apprenticeship lasts from 6 to 24 months, depending on previous work and education experience, as well as how the apprentice progresses through the milestones set in place for the apprenticeship.
The pre-apprenticeship phase of the training accrues no costs to the Work Partner; what they are getting is access to a pool of quality, prescreened (drug and background), entry-level apprentice candidates who have had hands-on practical training with tools and equipment as well as safety and softs skills training.
We feel that this program is essential for the industry in California; there needs to be a pipeline of candidates being trained and prepared for careers in the field. A survey conducted in the fall of 2021 by American Water Works Association (AWWA) states that, “Forty percent of the utility agencies that responded are struggling to hire staff, especially for the positions of water operator and service technician.” Currently, there is nothing else in the industry like this apprenticeship program.
The income advancement opportunities for operators are very attractive, with an entry-level wage of $22.50 for trainees who successfully complete the training program. Additionally, with opportunities for substantial overtime hours, plant operators can earn up to $70,000 annually by their second year, and with an additional certification they can earn between $85,000 and $105,000 in Los Angeles County.
Applicants for the apprenticeship program must be 18 years of age, have a high school diploma or a GED, and pass a background check.
Q: Can you describe the importance of the role operators play for the health and well-being of their communities?
Kadel: Water is our most important natural resource. Our operators are the unsung heroes of an important community service tied to our public health. They are the ones that make it possible for our children to drink without a second thought from a water fountain in the park. Why? Because of all the work they do behind the scenes to make that water safe.
It is the operators who are responsible for making sure that wastewater discharged into the groundwater, rivers, lakes and oceans is safe. They are the guardians of those crucial ecosystems. What they do helps ensure the health and well-being of many generations to come. Never forget: There’s a lot of things you can live without. But you can’t live without water for more than 72 hours.
For more information on the services provided by WaterWorkforce, please contact:
Senior Business Development and Recruitment Specialist