This article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Mass Waters (PDF).
The workforce shortage in the wastewater industry is driven by a number of factors, including the ongoing “silver tsunami” wave of retirements. Contrast this with the fact that, in Massachusetts specifically, there are many unemployed and underemployed young adults, ages 18 – 29 who need opportunities. Boston-based X-Cel Conservation Corps (XCC) is working to address this gap by educating and preparing folks to enter into a new career path.
XCC was created in September 2018 to help address economic and racial inequity in Boston by providing a new pathway to good-paying careers in wastewater management. At the same time, it is providing licensed wastewater operators for local wastewater treatment plants that are facing an aging workforce and a lack of younger operators entering the field. Prior to the launch of XCC, the career of wastewater operator was pretty much unheard of in the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. XCC has spent the past two years continually improving its model and is now successfully placing program graduates in full-time jobs as wastewater operators.
Because of people are often unaware of the career of wastewater operator, the program’s first step is outreach and recruitment. One of the most effective recruitment methods is simply posting flyers throughout neighborhoods in Boston, on light poles, utility boxes, bus stops, barber shops, hair salons, corner stores, and restaurants. 70% of the most recent XCC cohort learned about the program from seeing a flyer. Next, interested individuals must go through a multi-step application process to demonstrate commitment, part of an effort to enroll individuals who are a good fit for a career as a wastewater operator.
XCC has two components: crew members participate in weekly water conservation work projects and attend weekly classes to prepare for the MA Grade 3 Municipal Wastewater Operator’s license. The water conservation work projects develop workforce-readiness skills employers are looking for and introduce crew members to skills specific to wastewater treatment, such as collecting, testing, and analyzing water samples. The classes teach the subject matter that is needed to pass the MA Grade 3 Municipal Wastewater Operator’s license exam and at the end of the eight weekly classes, each graduate sits for the license exam. XCC crew members are paid for their time in the program, and many also work an outside part-time job to support themselves.
Once XCC crew members complete the program and obtain their Grade 3 Municipal Wastewater Operator’s license they apply and interview either for paid internships or full-time jobs as entry-level wastewater operators.
XCC has been highly successful so far. The spring 2021 cohort graduated six crew members. All six obtained their Grade 3 Municipal Wastewater Operator’s license within a month of completing the program. Four of the six are already employed as full-time wastewater operators, a fifth will begin a paid internship next in September, and the sixth is completing his high school equivalency before applying for a job.
The experience I’ve had with the X-Cel Conservation Corps has been nothing but positive. The staff is hard-working and supportive and have done a great job of helping me get a solid start in the field of wastewater.
Program participants also express their appreciation for the program, particularly that the internships offer hands-on experience. The combination of the educational programming and an internship offer insight into both municipal infrastructure and the business side of the industry.
In addition to the educational aspects of the program, XCC has partnered with several wastewater operator employers. One of the strongest employer partners is Woodard & Curran, which operates several water reclamation facilities in Massachusetts. Woodard & Curran has taken on 14 XCC graduates in paid internships over the past two years and has hired five as full-time wastewater operators in the past 18 months.
As Scott Papa, Woodard & Curran’s Plant Manager in Cohasset, said, “Working with XCC has been a great experience. We are able to partner with a program that is preparing its students for careers specifically in the wastewater field and give them hands on experience working at a facility through the internship program. The opportunity to be able to hire a licensed operator with a working knowledge of my facility at the end of the internship is invaluable.”
Isaiah Milton, a program participant who interned with Woodard & Curran and was subsequently hired as a full-time operator said this: “The Experience I’ve had with the X-Cel Conservation Corps has been nothing but positive. The staff are hard-working and supportive and have done a great job of helping me get a solid start in the field of wastewater.”
This was echoed by Tom Connelly, who followed the same path to a full-time operator’s job: “The paid internship I had through X-Cel and Woodard & Curran gave me an enjoyable, well-paying and rewarding career opportunity that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Robert Scott, an Area Manager with Woodard & Curran overseeing several projects, also expressed appreciation for the partnership with XCC. “It gives me great personal satisfaction to be able to place the graduates at a project and watch them develop and succeed in the wastewater field,” said Scott. “While they have little experience at the beginning, they are able to compensate with a great appreciation for the opportunity and a strong desire to learn and excel at the job.”
XCC, through outreach, education, and partnership, is making a positive impact in the lives of underemployed young people in Boston and helping fill the workforce gap in the wastewater industry. The program is a model for how the entire sector could potentially address worker shortages and build a long-term talent pipeline.