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Wastewater Operator Career Guide

What is a wastewater operator?

A wastewater operator, also known as a wastewater treatment operator, is a professional responsible for managing the systems that treat water contaminated by residential, commercial, and industrial waste. They ensure that the treated water complies with environmental regulations and is safe to return to natural water systems. 

This role is vital to public health and environmental protection as it prevents harmful pollutants from entering our waterways and potentially contaminating water supplies.

Wastewater operators play a significant role in maintaining the sustainability of our water resources. Their work contributes directly to environmental conservation efforts and communities’ health and safety. This role is necessary for any organization or municipality that generates wastewater, making these workers essential in various industries and public services.

Duties and responsibilities

Wastewater operators operate, monitor, and maintain wastewater treatment, collection, and disposal systems. Their duties include overseeing the treatment process and ensuring it effectively removes harmful substances before the water is discharged. They monitor equipment and control panels, adjust controls as needed, and inspect equipment and systems for faults or malfunctions.

Those in this role also take samples of wastewater and sludge for laboratory analysis to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. They often have to record data related to the operation of their facilities, prepare reports, and sometimes perform routine maintenance on equipment. In some positions, they might implement safety procedures and train other personnel.

Work environment

Wastewater operators work in wastewater treatment plants, which can be found in municipalities and industries such as manufacturing or food processing. These facilities are often outdoors, which exposes operators to various weather conditions. The work can be physically demanding, requiring operators to stand for extended periods, lift heavy objects, or perform tasks in confined spaces.

Safety is crucial to the work environment, as operators deal with hazardous materials and machinery. They typically wear protective gear, including hard hats, gloves, and safety glasses, and must adhere to strict safety protocols to minimize the risk of accidents or exposure to harmful substances.

Typical work hours

Wastewater operators typically work full-time schedules. However, since wastewater treatment plants operate continuously, some operators may work shifts during evenings, weekends, or holidays. Overtime can be required in emergencies or when specific maintenance tasks must be performed. 

Despite these demands, the role offers high satisfaction for those committed to environmental conservation and public health.

How to become a wastewater operator

Becoming a wastewater operator involves a series of steps, including acquiring the necessary education, completing relevant training, obtaining certifications, and gaining hands-on experience in the field.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED

A high school diploma or GED is typically the minimum educational requirement for entry-level wastewater operator positions. High school coursework in math, science, and vocational or technical subjects can provide a strong foundation for this career.

Step 2: Pursue a relevant postsecondary education (optional)

While not always required, pursuing a postsecondary education in a related field such as environmental science, water resources management, or civil engineering can benefit career advancement. Certificate programs, associate degrees, or bachelor’s degrees in these fields can provide a deeper understanding of the principles and practices involved in wastewater treatment.

Step 3: Complete on-the-job training

Most wastewater operators receive on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced professionals. This training typically covers topics such as plant operations, maintenance procedures, safety protocols, and regulatory compliance. The duration of the training may vary depending on the employer and the job’s complexity.

Step 4: Obtain a wastewater operator certification

Certification requirements vary by state or region but generally involve passing an exam and demonstrating a certain experience or education level. Research your local requirements and prepare for the certification exam by studying relevant materials, attending review courses, or participating in exam preparation workshops. 

Remember that certifications often have different levels or classes, which may correspond to the size and complexity of the wastewater treatment facilities you can operate.

Step 5: Gain hands-on experience

Experience is crucial in this field, and you may start as an entry-level operator or assistant before advancing to higher-level positions. Gain hands-on experience in wastewater treatment plant operations, equipment maintenance, and laboratory testing to develop the skills necessary to excel in this role.

Step 6: Continue your professional development

Stay current with industry trends, new technologies, and regulatory changes by participating in continuing education courses, attending industry conferences, and joining professional associations. Udemy offers these courses that are fully online, and you’ll earn a certificate upon completion:

Some states or regions may require continuing education for certification renewal. Staying current with the latest advancements in the field will help you maintain your skills and improve your career prospects.

How much do wastewater operators make?

The salary of a wastewater operator can be influenced by various factors such as the size and type of the facility they work at, their level of certification, their geographical location, and their level of experience. Operators who manage larger facilities or facilities with more complex treatment processes often earn higher salaries.

Those with advanced certifications can also earn more. In many states, wastewater operator certification is tiered, and operators with higher-level certifications, which require more experience and education, are qualified to work at more extensive, more complex facilities and often command higher salaries.

Geographical location can also impact the salary. Operators in areas with a higher cost of living or a high concentration of wastewater treatment facilities, like major metropolitan areas, often earn more.

Highest paying industries

  • State Government – $60,000
  • Local Government – $58,000
  • Waste Treatment and Disposal – $55,000
  • Consulting Services – $53,000
  • Manufacturing – $50,000

Highest paying states

  • California – $65,000
  • New York – $60,000
  • Illinois – $58,000
  • New Jersey – $57,000
  • Texas – $56,000

Browse wastewater operator salary data by market

Types of wastewater operators

In this career guide section, we focus on the essential and often overlooked field of wastewater operation. Their roles can vary depending on the specific processes and technologies used in the treatment facilities. 

Wastewater treatment operator

Wastewater treatment operators work in facilities that treat sewage from homes, businesses, and sometimes industries. They monitor and adjust the treatment process, conduct tests to ensure water quality, and maintain the equipment used in the treatment process.

Industrial wastewater operator

Operators of industrial wastewater treatment plants treat wastewater produced by industrial processes, which may contain different contaminants than household wastewater. It is imperative that they have specific knowledge about the industrial processes, the contaminants they are likely to encounter, and how they can effectively remove them.

Collection system operator

Collection system operators manage the sewer system that transports wastewater from homes and businesses to treatment facilities. Their duties include maintaining the system, repairing faults, and inspecting the inside of pipes with CCTV cameras.

Wastewater reclamation operator

Reclamation operators treat wastewater to a high standard to reuse it for irrigation, industrial processes, or groundwater replenishment. These operators need to be knowledgeable about advanced treatment processes and the stringent testing required to ensure the reclaimed water is safe for its intended use.

Biosolids operator

A biosolids operator manages the process of treating and disposing of solid waste, or sludge, produced during wastewater treatment. They oversee the processes that thicken, dewater, and stabilize the sludge, often converting it into biosolids that can be safely used as fertilizer.

Wastewater laboratory technician

While not always classified as operators, wastewater laboratory technicians play a crucial role in wastewater treatment. These professionals conduct tests on wastewater and sludge samples to monitor the treatment process, ensure compliance with regulations, and identify potential problems. They often work closely with the operators, providing them with the data they need to manage the treatment process effectively.

Top skills for wastewater operators

Technical knowledge is a cornerstone skill for a wastewater operator, as they must understand the principles of wastewater treatment, including the biological, chemical, and physical processes involved. This knowledge is crucial for monitoring the treatment process, making adjustments as needed, and ensuring that the treated water meets environmental regulations.

Problem-solving abilities are another key skill, as they often encounter challenges such as equipment malfunctions or process disruptions, and they need to quickly diagnose and resolve these issues to keep the treatment process running smoothly. A strong problem solver can maintain efficient operations, minimize downtime, and ensure the consistent quality of treated water.

The job often involves physically demanding tasks such as lifting heavy equipment, climbing ladders, and working in confined spaces. Operators must also be comfortable working in varying weather conditions and potentially dealing with unpleasant odors. Physical stamina enables them to perform their duties effectively and safely.

In this role, they need to monitor complex treatment processes, detect minor changes or issues, and maintain accurate records of operations. Attention to detail helps ensure compliance with regulations, accuracy in record-keeping, and early detection of potential problems.

They work with various equipment and machinery, from pumps to control systems, and need to understand how these machines work and how to maintain them. A mechanically adept operator can keep equipment in good working order, reducing the risk of breakdowns and ensuring the reliability of the treatment process.

Wastewater operator career path

Starting a career as a wastewater operator often begins with an entry-level role in a water or wastewater treatment facility. These roles, such as a wastewater treatment plant operator trainee or assistant operator, provide hands-on experience with treatment processes and equipment and often require the completion of specialized training programs and certifications.

With several years of experience and the achievement of necessary certifications, you can advance to a full wastewater operator role. In this capacity, you’ll be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of a wastewater treatment plant, ensuring compliance with environmental regulations, and performing regular maintenance and repair tasks.

As you gain more experience and expertise, you may progress to a senior wastewater operator or lead operator position. These roles often involve greater responsibility for overseeing plant operations, training junior operators, and troubleshooting more complex issues.

With significant experience and a proven track record of leadership, you could move into supervisory or managerial roles such as wastewater plant supervisor or wastewater operations manager. In these positions, you manage a team of operators, oversee plant operations, and ensure compliance with all local, state, and federal regulations.

Beyond this, some operators may move into administrative or executive roles within public utilities or environmental agencies, such as a public utilities director or environmental services director, where they would oversee broader water and wastewater strategies and operations.

The role of wastewater operators is becoming increasingly important and complex due to technological advancements, changing regulations, and growing public awareness about environmental issues. 

There’s a significant shift toward using advanced technologies in wastewater treatment, including automated systems for monitoring and controlling treatment processes and innovative waste reduction and energy recovery techniques. As a result, modern operators need to be proficient in operating and maintaining these technologies.

Another key trend is the growing emphasis on sustainability and resource recovery. Wastewater treatment plants are increasingly seen as resource recovery facilities that can recover valuable resources like water, energy, and nutrients from wastewater. Operators in this role are crucial in implementing and managing these resource recovery processes.

There’s a greater focus on compliance with environmental regulations, which are becoming more stringent in many places. They must know these regulations and ensure their facilities meet the required standards.

Employment projections for wastewater operators

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to decline by 7 percent through 2031. These operators will still be needed to monitor the complex machines that do this work and to ensure that water treatment plants and systems are working properly. They will also be needed to service the country’s aging infrastructure, particularly in older communities, where many wastewater treatment plants may need significant updating in the coming years. As a result, job prospects should be favorable for qualified workers.

Wastewater operator career tips

Familiarize yourself with regulatory standards

In this role, you must adhere to strict local, state, and federal regulations to ensure the safety and health of the public and the environment. Understanding and staying up-to-date with these regulations is crucial. This may include regulations related to wastewater treatment processes, discharge standards, and workplace safety.

Focus on safety

Working with wastewater can pose a variety of health and safety hazards. It’s essential to prioritize safety and follow all appropriate safety protocols and procedures. During equipment operation and maintenance, use personal protective equipment, follow correct procedures for handling hazardous substances, and adhere to safety guidelines.

Stay updated on technological advancements

Wastewater treatment technology is continually evolving, with new methods and equipment being developed. Staying informed about these advancements can help you improve efficiency, meet regulatory standards more effectively, and reduce the environmental impact of wastewater treatment.

Build a professional network

Networking can provide opportunities for learning, professional development, and career advancement. Consider joining professional organizations related to wastewater treatment, such as:

  • Water Environment Federation (WEF)
  • American Water Works Association (AWWA)
  • National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA)
  • Association of Boards of Certification (ABC)

Cultivate problem-solving skills

Wastewater operators often encounter complex problems like equipment malfunctions or treatment process inefficiencies. Developing strong problem-solving skills can help you identify and resolve these issues promptly and effectively.

Commit to continuous learning

Continuous learning is crucial in wastewater treatment due to ongoing changes in regulations, technologies, and best practices. Here are some suggestions for continuous learning:

  • Attend workshops, seminars, or conferences on wastewater treatment
  • Enroll in additional courses or training programs in environmental science, chemistry, or engineering
  • Stay updated with industry publications and research

Develop mechanical aptitude

Wastewater operators work with a variety of mechanical equipment. A solid mechanical aptitude can help you understand how this equipment works, perform routine maintenance, and troubleshoot issues when they arise.

Adopt a sustainable mindset

Sustainability is a growing concern in wastewater treatment. Operators can contribute by finding ways to improve the efficiency of treatment processes, reduce energy consumption, and minimize the environmental impact of wastewater discharge.

Maintain physical fitness

These operators often need to perform physical tasks, such as lifting heavy equipment or working in confined spaces. Maintaining a good level of physical fitness can help you perform these tasks safely and effectively.

Where the wastewater operator jobs are

Top companies

  • Veolia
  • Suez
  • American Water
  • Xylem
  • Ecolab

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Glassdoor
  • GovernmentJobs.com
  • Simply Hired


What are the different levels of certification for a wastewater operator?

Certifications typically range from Level 1 to Level 4, with Level 1 being the entry-level certification and Level 4 representing the highest level of expertise. The certification requirements vary depending on the jurisdiction but generally include a combination of education, experience, and successful completion of a certification exam. Higher levels of certification may also require additional specialized training.

How can a wastewater operator advance their career?

Career advancement may involve:

  • Obtaining higher levels of certification
  • Pursuing management or supervisory roles
  • Specializing in a specific area of wastewater treatment, such as industrial wastewater management or water reclamation

Continuing education and networking within the industry can also open up new opportunities for career growth.

What is the role of a wastewater operator in ensuring environmental compliance?

They play a crucial role in environmental compliance by ensuring that wastewater treatment processes meet regulatory standards for effluent discharge. This involves monitoring treatment processes, conducting regular tests on water quality, and maintaining accurate records. If any issues arise, wastewater operators must take corrective action and report non-compliance incidents to the relevant authorities.

How do wastewater operators ensure the safety of treatment facilities?

Operators ensure the safety of treatment facilities by following established safety protocols, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and keeping up-to-date with industry best practices. They also participate in regular safety training and inspections and maintain equipment in good working condition to minimize the risk of accidents.

What are some common challenges faced by wastewater operators?

Common challenges include:

  • Managing fluctuations in influent water quality
  • Keeping up with changing regulations
  • Maintaining aging infrastructure
  • Addressing equipment breakdowns

Additionally, they must handle hazardous materials and work in potentially hazardous environments, making safety a top priority.

How do wastewater operators collaborate with other water and wastewater industry professionals?

They work closely with various professionals in the water and wastewater industry, including engineers, laboratory technicians, maintenance staff, and regulatory agencies. Effective communication and teamwork are essential for ensuring smooth operations and compliance with environmental regulations.

How can a wastewater operator stay current with industry trends and technological advancements?

Staying current with industry trends and technological advancements is essential. They can attend industry conferences, workshops, and training sessions, subscribe to relevant trade publications, and participate in online forums and communities. Networking with other professionals in the field can also help them stay informed about the latest developments and best practices.

What role does a wastewater operator play in resource recovery and sustainability?

They play an essential role in resource recovery and sustainability by optimizing treatment processes to recover valuable resources from wastewater, such as nutrients and energy. This may involve implementing new technologies or techniques that promote energy efficiency, water reuse, and nutrient recovery, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable water management system.

How does a wastewater operator contribute to public health protection?

By ensuring that wastewater is treated effectively and meets regulatory standards for discharge, operators contribute to public health protection by preventing waterborne illnesses and safeguarding the quality of receiving water bodies. Their work helps maintain a clean and healthy environment, which is essential for the well-being of communities and ecosystems.