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Working as a water treatment plant operator

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Most of us flush our toilets or fill a glass from our kitchen faucet without a second thought. Water treatment plant operators know exactly where that water comes from, where it goes and what happens to it to make it safe for use and human consumption. Working as a water treatment plant operator can be a dirty and even dangerous job, but on the upside the federal government projects that job openings are likely to be plentiful.

What they do:

Water treatment plant operators, the vast majority of whom work for local governments, are responsible for making fresh water from wells, rivers and other natural sources safe for drinking -- or, if they work in wastewater treatment, making used water safe to release into the environment again. Though the machinery used in water treatment plants varies to a degree, it often includes heavy filters, pumps, clarifiers, ultraviolet light and other devices that remove toxins and pathogens from water. Plant operators' duties typically include running and maintaining this equipment, testing water samples and adding chemical purifiers to water, among other tasks.

It's not a job for the faint of heart. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the rate of accidents and illnesses is higher than average for these workers.

Water comes into plants dirty (certainly not drinkable, at any rate) and comes out clean. And even though machines do most of the cleaning, human intervention is required from time to time. Occupational hazards include slips and falls, exposure to toxic gases (like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia from raw sewage) and injuries from heavy machinery.

What they need:

A high school diploma is the minimum requirement for water treatment plant operators, though some training in the technology and management of water treatment plants at a vocational school or community college can be helpful. Workers usually undergo a period of on-the-job training, then gain experience as plant attendants before moving up to managerial positions.

What they earn:

According to, the national average salary for a wastewater treatment attendant, who oversees maintenance and tends pumps, chlorinators and other equipment, is $47,744, with the 25th percentile at $3,513 and the 75th percentile at $60,108. Wastewater treatment plant managers, who are higher up on the totem pole, earn an average $99,949, with the 25th percentile at $76,100 and the 75th percentile at $128,674.

Job outlook:

Here's a bright spot in the otherwise dim outlook for manufacturing occupations: job prospects are expected to be "excellent" for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, according to the most recent projections published by the BLS (the agency includes these workers in the manufacturing category).

Part of the reason for the rosy outlook is what the agency delicately calls the "unappealing" nature of some of the work. In other words, the ick factor means not many people apply for these jobs. But it's also because new plants are being built, and workers in the occupation are retiring. Applicants with training will have the best chances of getting hired, the BLS notes.

Job growth is expected to proceed at roughly the same rate as the average for all occupations: 12 percent between 2010 and 2020, accounting for 12,900 new jobs, according to the BLS.

Last Updated: 13/06/2012 - 3:54 PM

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