Water treatment plants collect water from the environment (e.g. lakes, rivers, reservoirs, groundwater and underground sources) and treat it to a quality that is safe for human consumption. The drinking water is then piped to customers.
Wastewater treatment plants receive piped wastewater and stormwater from houses and businesses and process the water to remove harmful substances before it is returned in a safe form to rivers and seas. The residual sludge is then disposed of in a variety of ways including:
The duties of treatment plant operators vary, depending on the area in which they specialise, but may include some or all of the following:
Although much of the plant has become computer operated in recent years, the job can still be physically demanding. Duties may vary according to the size of the plant: in smaller plant the operator may be responsible for a whole range of processes, whereas in a large plant there will be more specialisation.
Treatment plant operators normally work as part of a team with a supervisor, senior technicians, water quality scientists, engineers and a manager.
Plant operators normally work 37 hours a week. It may be possible to work overtime. Part-time work is uncommon. Water and wastewater treatment works operate at all hours, every day, so shift work is often required. Some operators are required to join a call-out rota, which covers nights and weekends, but an allowance is often provided for this.
Operators may be based indoors, sometimes in control rooms, but they also may have to work outside in all weathers. Conditions at some of the plants can be smelly and wet, involving contact with unpleasant substances. Protective clothing is provided.
Some of the work is carried out in confined spaces or at heights, and some tasks involve using compressed air breathing apparatus. Extensive training is provided in such circumstances.
A trainee operator may earn around £11,000 a year. Experienced operators may earn £16,000 to £22,000 a year and Supervisors can earn £25,000 a year or more.
There may be additional payments for shift work, standby call-outs and overtime.
The UK water industry employs around 166,000 people. In England, water and wastewater treatment plant operators are employed by the regional water and wastewater companies that may be water-only companies or combined water and sewage companies. Scotland has only one water authority and Northern Ireland has only one water authority where domestic customers do not have to pay water rates.
Operators work at water treatment works and sewage works. Many of the works are based near large towns and cities, but some are quite remote.
A list of the twenty-four water companies and their websites can be found on the Water UK website. Water companies post job vacancies on their websites and jobs are also advertised in Jobcentre Plus offices and in local newspapers.
No formal minimum entry qualifications are laid down, although some companies ask for four or five GCSE's (A*-E), including maths, English and a science or technology subject. Employers also look for particular skills and interests that are relevant to the job, such as an interest in environmental issues and IT skills. Some companies may ask new operators to take a medical test.
The Diploma in engineering and the Diploma in environmental and land-based studies may be relevant for this type of work.
Some employers set a minimum entry age of 18 while others provide training for young people aged 16-18. It is possible to train through a Water Industry Apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
People with relevant work experience in areas such as site maintenance or machinery operation may be able to enter this type of work.
Treatment plant operators are trained mainly on the job. Training is likely to involve shadowing experienced colleagues and working under close supervision while learning the set procedures. In addition, there may be some formal in-house training and/or training at a local college.
Subjects covered include:
- Water technology and supply
- Sampling and testing
- Use of chemicals
- Health and safety
- Emergency first aid
Employers may offer the opportunity to work towards awards relevant to the water industry, such as:
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
Water/wastewater treatment plant operators need to:
Experienced operators may be promoted to a supervisory or training position. They may gain further promotion to inspector, superintendent or treatment plant manager.
Alternatively, treatment plant operators may move into related areas within the industry, including engineering or treatment plant design.
Some operators undertake further qualifications such as a Higher National Diploma/Certificate (HND/C) or degree, which can allow them to progress to higher technical positions.
There may be opportunities for overseas work, particularly in developing countries.
Diploma in Environmental and Land Based Studies
Energy & Utility Skills Limited
Tel: 0845 077 9922
Institute of Water
Tel: 0191 422 0088
Tel: 020 7344 1844
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.