Teaching the Trade

From the Fall 2003 Waterline, the quarterly newsletter of the Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, © Waterline, Minnesota Department of Health

Steve KleistWater quality and supply issues attract attention around the world and around the country, whether the news focuses on the need to repair water treatment facilities in Iraq following the war or to ease a drought in the western United States.

Most parts of Minnesota are in better shape, although aging infrastructure and other concerns are frequently mentioned as threats to our continued supply of safe drinking water. Often overlooked is the impact of a lack of qualified personnel to operate water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Only two schools in the state offer courses related to this profession. St. Cloud Technical College has a Water Environment Technologies program led by instructors Keith Redmond and Bill Spain. In Ely, Steve Kleist is the instructor for the Water Resources Program at Vermilion Community College.

“There’s not a burning pool of people who think about getting into water,” says Kleist. “Most people here like the environment or ecology but don’t have water specifically in mind. Once they get in, they love it and see the opportunity.”

Ryan Frisk is a Vermilion student who learned of the water courses while searching different schools on the internet. He had worked in maintenance at a nursing home that was going through layoffs. He decided to return to school since, he said, “It’s tough finding a job without training.” He was attracted to this program because of the
conservation aspect of the profession. “Water is a stable field,” he added.

Kevin BeadlesKevin Beadles is a student in the program at St. Cloud Technical College. He plans to work in water or wastewater treatment when he graduates and hopes to find a job in the Zimmerman area, where he lives. “I’ve always been an environmentalist, but I wasn’t interested in science,” said Beadles, explaining his decision to enroll in this program. “When I found out about this, I thought it sounded pretty good.”

Many of the students in the water technologies programs live in Greater Minnesota and want to find a job outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area when they finish school, leaving water and wastewater facilities in the most populated region in the state with special challenges in recruiting workers. For this reason, St. Cloud Technical College began offering its course in the Twin Cities, at the Eden Prairie Water Plant. “The hope is that students in Eden Prairie will be more comfortable staying in that area,” says Redmond, adding that they are seeing an older group of students in Eden Prairie, many of whom are switching careers.

While the water/wastewater program on the St. Cloud campus has more students coming directly out of high school, it also has its share of those returning to school after having worked in other professions. A member of the latter group is Sue Fish, a self-described “college dropout from the 1980s.” Fish had been a biology major at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. After leaving college, she worked as a machinist for several years and then as a delivery specialist for Fingerhut in St. Cloud. Fish saw layoffs coming to Fingerhut and got out ahead of them, only to be laid off from her next job, at New Flyer USA. Through a dislocated workers program, she was able to go to school and was happy to find that her credits from Anoka-Ramsey would transfer to St. Cloud. Beyond the transfer of credits, what she had learned at the community college also helped her. “I had a lot of chemistry and math at Anoka-Ramsey,” she said, “It’s important to have a good grasp of algebra.”

Mechanical Lab at St. Cloud Technical CollegeShe said her love of being outside is one of the things that has attracted her to the water profession as well as
working with both her hands and her mind. “This is a job where you’re not stuck.”

The schools in Ely and St. Cloud both have laboratories and offer a mix of scientific and mechanical courses. Water and wastewater treatment, sampling and lab analysis, and maintenance and operation of equipment are the key parts of the curriculum at both schools. All students complete their course work by taking an exam to receive a Class D water operators license.

Kleist notes that at Vermilion Community College, “Northeast Minnesota is our lab. It’s all part of the Ely adventure.” Students often do sampling of the boundary waters and conclude their school year with a canoe trip.

Vermilion graduates receive a two-year degree that is designed to transfer to many schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin. “This dovetails nicely into Environmental Sciences,” Kleist notes. However, many students choose to take immediate advantage of job opportunities and enter the water field.

In addition to her courses at St. Cloud Technical College, Fish is a part-time student worker at the Cold Spring Wastewater Plant, where she is involved in routine daily operations, such as sampling and performing tests in the laboratory. She looks ahead to entering the field full-time after graduation.

“I’m tired of getting laid off,” Fish says, who sees the stability in her new career. “No matter how bad the economy gets, people are still going to have to be able to drink water and flush toilets.”

Keith Redmond and Sue Fish

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Updated Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 06:42AM