Bureau of Labor Statistics

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators image
Operators monitor operating conditions, meters, and gauges.
Quick Facts: Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators
2020 Median Pay $49,090 per year
$23.60 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training Long-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2019 126,400
Job Outlook, 2019-29 -4% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2019-29 -5,400

Summary

What Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators Do

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators manage a system of machines to transfer or treat water or wastewater.

Work Environment

Most water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators are employed by local government. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically work full time.

How to Become a Water or Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent and a license to work. They also complete on-the-job training.

Pay

The median annual wage for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators was $49,090 in May 2020.

Job Outlook

Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to decline 4 percent from 2019 to 2029. As water and wastewater treatment plants become more advanced due to automation, fewer workers may be needed.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators Do

Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators
Water and wastewater treatment plant operators collect and test water and sewage samples.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators manage a system of machines, often through the use of control boards, to transfer or treat water or wastewater.

Duties

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically do the following:

  • Add chemicals, such as ammonia or chlorine, to disinfect water or other liquids
  • Inspect equipment on a regular basis
  • Monitor operating conditions, meters, and gauges
  • Collect and test water and sewage samples
  • Record meter and gauge readings and operational data
  • Document and report test results to regulatory agencies
  • Operate equipment to purify and clarify water or to process or dispose of sewage
  • Clean and maintain equipment, tanks, filter beds, and other work areas
  • Follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations
  • Ensure safety standards are met

It takes many steps to get water from natural sources—reservoirs, streams, and groundwater—into people’s houses. Similarly, it is a complicated process to convert the wastewater from drains and sewers into a form that is safe to release into the environment.

The specific duties of plant operators depend on the type and size of the plant. In a small plant, one operator may be responsible for maintaining all of the systems. In large plants, multiple operators work the same shifts and are more specialized in their duties, often relying on computerized systems to help them monitor plant processes.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be able to manually operate the equipment if there is a plant malfunction due to power outages or electrical issues.

Water treatment plant and system operators work in water treatment plants. Fresh water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, or reservoirs to water treatment plants, where it is treated and distributed to customers. Water treatment plant and system operators run the equipment, control the processes, and monitor the plants that treat water to make it safe to drink.

Wastewater treatment plant and system operators remove pollutants from domestic and industrial waste. Used water, also known as wastewater, travels through sewer pipes to treatment plants where it is treated and either returned to streams, rivers, and oceans, or used for irrigation.

Work Environment

Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators often perform physically demanding tasks.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators held about 126,400 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals 75%
Utilities 12
Manufacturing 4

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators work both indoors and outdoors. Their work is physically demanding and usually is performed in locations that are unclean or difficult to access. Operators may be exposed to noise from machinery and are often exposed to unpleasant odors.

Injuries and Illnesses

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators sometimes get injured on the job. They must pay close attention to safety procedures because of hazardous conditions, such as slippery walkways, the presence of dangerous gases, and malfunctioning equipment.

Operators are trained in emergency management procedures and use safety equipment to protect their health, as well as that of the public.

Work Schedules

Water and waste treatment plant and system operators typically work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, they may need to work during weather conditions that cause large amounts of storm water or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

How to Become a Water or Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operator

Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified.

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need at least a high school diploma or equivalent and a license to work. They also complete on-the-job training.

Education

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators typically need a high school diploma or equivalent to become operators. Employers may prefer applicants who have completed a certificate, an associate’s, or a bachelor’s degree program in a related field such as environmental science or wastewater treatment technology.

Training

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators need long-term on-the-job training to become fully qualified. Water and wastewater treatment is a complex process. Trainees learn their skills on the job under the direction of an experienced operator. The trainees 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 plant equipment. They also learn about industrial safety and how to use personal protective equipment.

Larger treatment plants usually combine this on-the-job training with formal classroom or self-paced study programs. As plants get larger and more complicated, operators need more skills before they are allowed to work without supervision.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must be licensed by the state in which they work. Requirements and standards vary widely depending on the state.

State licenses typically have multiple levels, which indicate the operator’s experience and training. Although some states will honor licenses from other states, operators who move from one state to another may need to take a new set of exams to become licensed in their new state.

Advancement

Most states have multiple levels of licenses for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators. Each increase in license level allows the operator to perform more complicated processes without supervision.

At the largest plants, operators who have the highest license level work as shift supervisors and may be in charge of large teams of operators.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must conduct tests and inspections on water or wastewater and evaluate the results.

Detail oriented. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must monitor machinery, gauges, dials, and controls to ensure everything is operating properly. Because tap water and wastewater are highly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, operators must be careful and thorough in completing these tasks.

Math skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must have the ability to apply data to formulas that determine treatment requirements, flow levels, and concentration levels.

Mechanical skills. Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators must know how to work with machines and use tools. They must be familiar with how to operate, repair, and maintain equipment.

Pay

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Median annual wages, May 2020

Plant and system operators

$62,540

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators

$49,090

Total, all occupations

$41,950

 

The median annual wage for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators was $49,090 in May 2020. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,620.

In May 2020, the median annual wages for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals $49,130
Utilities 48,110
Manufacturing 47,950

Water and waste treatment plant and system operators work full time. Plants operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In small plants, operators are likely to work during the day and be on call nights and weekends. In medium- and large-size plants that require constant monitoring, operators work in shifts to control the plant at all hours.

Occasionally, operators must work during emergencies. For example, they may need to work during weather conditions that cause large amounts of storm water or wastewater to flow into sewers, exceeding a plant’s capacity. Emergencies also may be caused by malfunctions within a plant, such as chemical leaks or oxygen deficiencies.

Job Outlook

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Total, all occupations

4%

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators

-4%

Plant and system operators

-5%

 

Employment of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators is projected to decline 4 percent from 2019 to 2029.  

As water and wastewater treatment plants become more advanced with automated systems to manage treatment processes, fewer workers may be needed. Although some work can be automated, plants will still need skilled workers to operate increasingly complex controls and water and wastewater systems.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities are expected to arise from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation permanently over the coming decade. Job prospects will be best for those with training or higher education in water or wastewater systems and good mechanical skills.

Employment projections data for water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, 2019-29

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Occupational Title

Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators

SOC Code51-8031
Employment, 2019126,400
Projected Employment, 2029121,000
Percent Change, 2019-29-4
Numeric Change, 2019-29-5,400
Employment by IndustryGet data

State & Area Data

Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS)

The Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OEWS data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

CareerOneStop

CareerOneStop includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2020 MEDIAN PAY
Construction equipment operators

Construction Equipment Operators

Construction equipment operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, buildings, and other structures.

High school diploma or equivalent $49,100
General maintenance and repair workers

General Maintenance and Repair Workers

General maintenance and repair workers fix and maintain machines, mechanical equipment, and buildings.

High school diploma or equivalent $40,850
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers

Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers

Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers control the systems that generate and distribute electric power.

High school diploma or equivalent $89,090
Stationary engineers and boiler operators

Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators

Stationary engineers and boiler operators control stationary engines, boilers, or other mechanical equipment.

High school diploma or equivalent $64,680
Hydrologists

Hydrologists

Hydrologists study how water moves across and through the Earth’s crust.

Bachelor's degree $84,040
Hazardous materials removal workers

Hazardous Materials Removal Workers

Hazardous materials removal workers identify and dispose of harmful substances such as asbestos, lead, and radioactive waste.

High school diploma or equivalent $45,270

Contacts for More Info

For information on employment opportunities, contact state or local water pollution control agencies, state water and wastewater operator associations, state environmental training centers, or local offices of the state employment service.

For information related to a career as a water or wastewater treatment plant and system operator, visit

American Water Works Association

The National Rural Water Association

Water Environment Federation

Work for Water

For more information on certification for water or wastewater treatment plant and system operator, visit

Association of Boards of Certification

O*NET

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Last Modified Date: Friday, April 9, 2021

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/water-and-wastewater-treatment-plant-and-system-operators.htm (visited May 27, 2021).

Telephone: 1-202-691-5700 www.bls.gov/ooh Contact OOH

View this page on regular www.bls.gov

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