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New operator scholarship announced…AWWA’s The Water Equation Campaign has established a fund to support the One AWWA Operator Scholarship with participating Sections.

New operator scholarship announced
February 18, 2016


By Ann Espinola

Ronnie Dela Vega is married and the father of three boys. He drives a delivery truck 50 to 60 hours a week, wants better health insurance, and doesn’t get paid overtime. He dreams of becoming a water treatment operator.

“It pays well once you really get into it,” said Dela Vega, who first considered becoming an operator after delivering supplies to a water treatment plant in California.  “I would love to be an operator. You’re serving your community and the work is interesting. I couldn’t ask for more.”

AWWA’s The Water Equation Campaign has established a fund to support the One AWWA Operator Scholarship with participating Sections. The scholarship is meant for people like Dela Vega who contemplate operator careers and will pay for certification and licensure courses, two-year community college water programs, training, books and manuals.

It’s no secret, of course, that the water sector is facing a critical shortage of skilled professionals.

“The idea is to bring people in for work force sustainability,” said Steve Dennis, an AWWA vice president. “This scholarship recognizes the importance of qualified water treatment operators and their role in the industry’s mission to provide safe drinking water. They really are where the rubber meets the road.”

The scholarship is part of the Water Equation Campaign, AWWA’s major philanthropic program dedicated to workforce advancement, community and international outreach, and education. One of the goals for the campaign this year is to raise funds to double the number of scholarships awarded annually through the Association, thereby creating the world’s largest water scholarship fund.

“It’s the power of two,” said Sharon Powers, director of administration and development at AWWA. “It takes two – AWWA and you – to solve this equation. Together we can double the number of scholarships.”

In addition to the One AWWA Operator Scholarship, the Water Equation Campaign also supports the Abel Wolman Fellowship and the Larson Aquatic Research Scholarship. Competition for the scholarships is fierce and winners are the best and the brightest in the field, Powers said.

The Association-Section partnership will work like this: The Association will provide participating Sections with annual matching One AWWA Operator Scholarship funds in increments of $500 and $1,000.  The Association’s The Water Equation will fundraise throughout the year as part of the campaign to fund the matching scholarship.  The AWWA Board of Directors at its winter board meeting in January pledged almost $9,300 to kick-off the funding of the program.

“This is one way that the Sections and Association can complement each other,” Dennis said.

Sections can participate by creating a new One AWWA Operator Scholarship, with each limited to $1,000 in matching grant money. Each scholarship, therefore, will be worth $1,000 or $2,000. The Sections will award the scholarships and manage the application process.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an additional 7,000 water and wastewater operators will be needed over the next decade. As technology becomes even more complicated, so will the demands on operators.

“There’s a dynamic across the industry which is requiring new skills especially on the part of the operator as a result of advanced treatment processes, such as membrane filtration for desalination and reverse osmosis,” said Dennis, pictured at right.

Luis Cuellar is a water treatment operator at the Alameda Water District in Fremont, Calif. He set his sights on an operator career back in 2003, when he was working in the district’s mail room.

“It would have been nice to have had financial assistance back then,” he said. “At the time, the only exam review courses were in Southern California, which is approximately 370 miles from my home and the assistance would have greatly helped to absorb the travel costs. I’m glad I decided to take the exam review course, but it was something I was hesitant to do with the extra travel costs. Not to mention the fact that I was making a lot less money back then.”

Cuellar passed with flying colors and now works in a career he loves. But he wonders how many would-be or current operators are daunted by the technical nature of the job and taking the required test. Though not mandatory, exam review courses enhance the likelihood of success.

“Timing is a critical factor,” Cuellar said. “With so many operators nearing retirement, it’s important that we get the next generation of operators in the operator’s chair learning from these seasoned veterans. This scholarship is a great way of doing that.”

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