Occupation Profile for Water and Liquid Waste Treatment Plant and System Operators

Operate or control an entire process or system of machines, often through the use of control boards, to transfer or treat water or liquid waste.


Significant Points

  • Employment is concentrated in local government and private water, sewage, and other systems utilities.
  • Because of a large number of upcoming retirements and the difficulty of filling these positions, job opportunities will be excellent.
  • Completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate program increases an applicant’s chances for employment and promotion.


$36,070.00 Median Annual Wage 3,000 Average Job Openings Per Year
1.2 Average Unemployment Percentage 51.7 Percentage That Completed High School
111,000 Employment Numbers in 2006 40.6 Percentage That Had Some College
126,000 Employment Numbers in 2016 (est.) 7.8 Percentage That Went Beyond College Degree

Sample Job Titles
Basin Tender
Biosolids Management Technician
Clarifying Plant Operator
Dispatcher, Radioactive Waste Disposal
Disposal Operator
Disposal Plant Operator
Drinking Water Technician
Filter Tender
Filtration Operator
Filtration Plant Operator
Industrial Waste Treatment Technician
On-Site Wastewater Systems Technician
Plant Operator
Process Operator
Pump Station Operator, Waterworks
Purification Operator
SCADA Operator (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Operator)
Sewage Plant Operator
Sewage Treatment Plant Operator
Technician, Water Treatment
Waste Disposal Plant Operator
Waste Treatment Operator
Waste Water Operator
Waste Water Treatment Plant Operator (WWTP Operator)
Wastewater Treatment Operator
Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator
Water Filterer
Water Plant Operator
Water Pump Operator
Water Pumper
Water Purifier Operator
Water Reclamation Systems Operator
Water Supply Technician
Water System Operator
Water Treatment Plant Operator
Watershed Tender
Waterworks Employee
Waterworks Operator

  • These occupations usually involve using communication and organizational skills to coordinate, supervise, manage, or train others to accomplish goals. Examples include funeral directors, electricians, forest and conservation technicians, legal secretaries, interviewers, and insurance sales agents.
  • Most occupations in this zone require training in vocational schools, related on-the-job experience, or an associate's degree. Some may require a bachelor's degree.
  • Previous work-related skill, knowledge, or experience is required for these occupations. For example, an electrician must have completed three or four years of apprenticeship or several years of vocational training, and often must have passed a licensing exam, in order to perform the job.
  • Employees in these occupations usually need one or two years of training involving both on-the-job experience and informal training with experienced workers.

Employers usually hire high school graduates who are trained on-the-job, and later become licensed. Education after high school improves job prospects.

Education and training. A high school diploma usually is required for an individual to become a water or wastewater treatment plant operator. The completion of an associate degree or a 1-year certificate program in water quality and wastewater treatment technology increases an applicant’s chances for employment and promotion because plants are becoming more complex. The majority of such programs are offered by trade associations, and can be found throughout the country. These programs provide a good general knowledge of water and wastewater treatment processes, as well as basic preparation for becoming an operator. In some cases, a degree or certificate program can be substituted for experience, allowing a worker to become licensed at a higher level more quickly.

Trainees usually start as attendants or operators-in-training and learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. They learn by observing and doing routine tasks such as recording meter readings, taking samples of wastewater and sludge, and performing simple maintenance and repair work on pumps, electric motors, valves, and other plant equipment. Larger treatment plants generally combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs.

Most State drinking water and water pollution control agencies offer courses to improve operators’ skills and knowledge. The courses cover principles of treatment processes and process control, laboratory procedures, maintenance, management skills, collection systems, safety, chlorination, sedimentation, biological treatment, sludge treatment and disposal, and flow measurements. Some operators take correspondence courses on subjects related to water and wastewater treatment, and some employers pay part of the tuition for related college courses in science or engineering.

Licensure. The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, specify national minimum standards for certification of public water system operators. Operators must pass an examination certifying that they are capable of overseeing water treatment operations. Mandatory certification is implemented at the State level, and licensing requirements and standards vary widely depending on the State. There are generally three to four different levels of certification, depending on the operator’s experience and training. Higher levels qualify the operator to oversee a wider variety of treatment processes. Although relocation may mean having to become certified in a new jurisdiction, many States accept other States’ certifications.

Other qualifications. Water and wastewater treatment plant operators need mechanical aptitude and the ability to solve problems intuitively. They should also be competent in basic mathematics, chemistry, and biology. They must have the ability to apply data to formulas that determine treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels. Some basic familiarity with computers also is necessary, as operators generally use them to record data. Some plants also use computer-controlled equipment and instrumentation.

Certification and advancement. In addition to mandatory certifications required by law, operators can earn voluntary certifications that demonstrate their skills and knowledge. The Association of Boards of Certification offers several levels and types of certification to people who pass exams and have sufficient education and experience.

As operators are promoted, they become responsible for more complex treatment processes. Some operators are promoted to plant supervisor or superintendent; others advance by transferring to a larger facility. Postsecondary training in water and wastewater treatment, coupled with increasingly responsible experience as an operator, may be sufficient to qualify a worker to become superintendent of a small plant, where a superintendent also serves as an operator. However, educational requirements are rising as larger, more complex treatment plants are built to meet new drinking water and water pollution control standards. With each promotion, the operator must have greater knowledge of Federal, State, and local regulations. Superintendents of large plants generally need an engineering or science degree.

A few operators get jobs as technicians with State drinking water or water pollution control agencies. In that capacity, they monitor and provide technical assistance to plants throughout the State. Vocational-technical school or community college training generally is preferred for technician jobs. Experienced operators may transfer to related jobs with industrial liquid waste treatment plants, water or liquid waste treatment equipment and chemical companies, engineering consulting firms, or vocational-technical schools.

Nature of Work

Clean water is essential for everyday life. Water treatment plant and system operators treat water so that it is safe to drink. Liquid waste treatment plant and system operators, also known as wastewater treatment plant and system operators, remove harmful pollutants from domestic and industrial liquid waste so that it is safe to return to the environment.

Water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Wastewater travels through customers’ sewer pipes to wastewater treatment plants, where it is treated and either returned to streams, rivers, and oceans or reused for irrigation and landscaping. Operators in both types of plants control equipment and processes that remove or destroy harmful materials, chemicals, and microorganisms from the water. Operators also control pumps, valves, and other equipment that moves the water or wastewater through the various treatment processes, after which they dispose of the removed waste materials.

Operators read, interpret, and adjust meters and gauges to make sure that plant equipment and processes are working properly. Operators control chemical-feeding devices, take samples of the water or wastewater, perform chemical and biological laboratory analyses, and adjust the amounts of chemicals, such as chlorine, in the water. They employ a variety of instruments to sample and measure water quality, and they use common hand and power tools to make repairs to valves, pumps, and other equipment.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators increasingly rely on computers to help monitor equipment, store the results of sampling, make process-control decisions, schedule and record maintenance activities, and produce reports. In some modern plants, operators also use computers to monitor automated systems and determine how to address problems.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. A heavy rainstorm, for example, may cause large amounts of wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s treatment capacity. Emergencies also can be caused by conditions inside a plant, such as chlorine gas leaks or oxygen deficiencies. To handle these conditions, operators are trained to make an emergency management response and use special safety equipment and procedures to protect public health and the facility. During these periods, operators may work under extreme pressure to correct problems as quickly as possible. Because working conditions may be dangerous, operators must be extremely cautious.

The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of the plant. In smaller plants, one operator may control all of the machinery, perform tests, keep records, handle complaints, and perform repairs and maintenance. Operators in this type of plant may have to be on-call 24 hours a day in case of an emergency. In medium-sized plants, operators monitor the plant throughout the night by working in shifts. In large plants, operators may be more specialized and monitor only one process. They might work with chemists, engineers, laboratory technicians, mechanics, helpers, supervisors, and a superintendent.

Water quality standards are largely set by two major Federal environmental statutes: the Safe Drinking Water Act, which specifies standards for drinking water, and the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants. Industrial facilities that send their wastes to municipal treatment plants must meet certain minimum standards to ensure that the wastes have been adequately pretreated and will not damage municipal treatment facilities. Municipal water treatment plants also must meet stringent standards for drinking water. The list of contaminants regulated by these statutes has grown over time. As a result, plant operators must be familiar with the guidelines established by Federal regulations and how they affect their plant. In addition, operators must be aware of any guidelines imposed by the State or locality in which the plant operates.

Work environment. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors and may be exposed to noise from machinery and to unpleasant odors. Operators’ work is physically demanding and often is performed in unclean locations; they must pay close attention to safety procedures because of the presence of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment.

Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators may work during the day and be on-call in the evening, nights and weekends. Medium and large plants that require constant monitoring may employ workers in three 8-hour shifts. Because larger plants require constant monitoring, weekend and holiday work is generally required. Operators may be required to work overtime.

Related Occupations

Sources: Career Guide to Industries (CGI), Occupational Information Network (O*Net), Occupation Outlook Handbook (OOH)

Median annual earnings of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators were $36,070 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $28,120 and $45,190. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,860, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $55,120. Median annual earnings of water and liquid waste treatment plant and systems operators in May 2006 were $36,200 in local government and $34,180 in water, sewage, and other systems.

In addition to their annual salaries, water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators usually receive benefits that may include health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and educational reimbursement for job-related courses.

For the latest wage information:

The above wage data are from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey program, unless otherwise noted. For the latest National, State, and local earnings data, visit the following pages:

  • Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators
  • Job Outlook

    Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators jobs are expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations. Job opportunities should be excellent for qualified workers.

    Employment change. Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is expected to grow by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016, which is faster than the average for all occupations. An increasing population and the growth of the economy are expected to boost demand for water and wastewater treatment services. As new plants are constructed to meet this demand, new water and wastewater treatment plant and system operator new jobs will arise.

    Local governments are the largest employers of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators. Employment in privately owned facilities will grow faster, as Federal certification requirements have increased utilities’ reliance on private firms specializing in the operation and management of water and wastewater treatment facilities.

    Job prospects. Job opportunities should be excellent because the retirement of the baby boomer generation will require that many operators with years of experience be replaced. Further, the number of applicants for these jobs is normally low, due primarily to the physically demanding and unappealing nature of some of the work. Opportunities should be best for persons with mechanical aptitude and problem solving skills.


    Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators held about 111,000 jobs in 2006. Almost 4 in 5 operators worked for local governments. Others worked primarily for private water, sewage, and other systems utilities and for private waste treatment and disposal and waste management services companies. Private firms are increasingly providing operation and management services to local governments on a contract basis.

    Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators were employed throughout the country, but most jobs were in larger towns and cities. Although nearly all operators worked full time, those in small towns may work only part time at the treatment plant, with the remainder of their time spent handling other municipal duties.

    • Mathematics — Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications.
    • Engineering and Technology — Knowledge of the practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services.
    • Sales and Marketing — Knowledge of principles and methods for showing, promoting, and selling products or services. This includes marketing strategy and tactics, product demonstration, sales techniques, and sales control systems.
    • Medicine and Dentistry — Knowledge of the information and techniques needed to diagnose and treat human injuries, diseases, and deformities. This includes symptoms, treatment alternatives, drug properties and interactions, and preventive health-care measures.
    • Physics — Knowledge and prediction of physical principles, laws, their interrelationships, and applications to understanding fluid, material, and atmospheric dynamics, and mechanical, electrical, atomic and sub- atomic structures and processes.
    • Equipment Maintenance — Performing routine maintenance on equipment and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.
    • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others' actions.
    • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
    • Writing — Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience.
    • Troubleshooting — Determining causes of operating errors and deciding what to do about it.
    • Near Vision — The ability to see details at close range (within a few feet of the observer).
    • Stamina — The ability to exert yourself physically over long periods of time without getting winded or out of breath.
    • Explosive Strength — The ability to use short bursts of muscle force to propel oneself (as in jumping or sprinting), or to throw an object.
    • Oral Comprehension — The ability to listen to and understand information and ideas presented through spoken words and sentences.
    • Hearing Sensitivity — The ability to detect or tell the differences between sounds that vary in pitch and loudness.
    • Core — Maintain, repair, and lubricate equipment, using hand tools and power tools.
    • Core — Record operational data, personnel attendance, or meter and gauge readings on specified forms.
    • Core — Clean and maintain tanks and filter beds, using hand tools and power tools.
    • Core — Direct and coordinate plant workers engaged in routine operations and maintenance activities.
    • Core — Add chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, or lime to disinfect and deodorize water and other liquids.
    • Monitoring and Controlling Resources — Monitoring and controlling resources and overseeing the spending of money.
    • Guiding, Directing, and Motivating Subordinates — Providing guidance and direction to subordinates, including setting performance standards and monitoring performance.
    • Assisting and Caring for Others — Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.
    • Repairing and Maintaining Electronic Equipment — Servicing, repairing, calibrating, regulating, fine-tuning, or testing machines, devices, and equipment that operate primarily on the basis of electrical or electronic (not mechanical) principles.
    • Getting Information — Observing, receiving, and otherwise obtaining information from all relevant sources.
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