Going with the Flow: Santiago Canyon College’s Water Utility Services Program Programs

March 22, 2019

Despite what you hear on the nightly news, the leading cause of death and disease across the world is not war, or terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction. It’s water contamination, and according to the World Health Organization, it kills more than 3.4 million people a year—the vast majority of which are children.

Fortunately, these kinds of tragedies are rare in the United States.

“It’s very easy to turn on your faucet and enjoy clean running water but there’s a whole lot of infrastructure and personnel and training that goes into making that happen,” says Steve McLean, a 30-year veteran of the water services industry.

“I think you could argue that we’re the most essential public utility that no one knows anything about.”

For McLean, as chair of Santiago Canyon College’s Water Utility Science program, changing that is a top priority.

Over the last several years, surveys conducted by the American Water Works Association, the major trade organization for the water utilities and services sector, have identified a “gray wave” of impending retirements that threatens to cripple the industry. It is predicted that over the next decade, 50% of the existing workforce will be retiring. Most observers would say that that’s more than a wave. It’s a tsunami.

“This is a real need and these are real vacancies that we need to fill as a society,” says McLean, who estimates that about 1800 positions will need to be replaced every year in California alone. “While this need is immediate, you have to understand that this is not a boom or bust industry like aerospace or construction. The need is constant. Everybody needs water which means every community needs certified operators.”

Providing those operators is where SCC comes in.

Since its founding over 30 years ago, the purpose of SCC’s program, which is the oldest in the state, has remained the same—to prepare workers to utilize the most advanced technologies available in order to provide safe drinking water to people.

“But for any technology to be effective,” says McLean, “the people who operate it need to know what they’re doing. So, our mission is exactly that—to train people to use the technologies that are essential to keeping everyone and their community’s water supplies safe.”

To do that, SCC’s Water Utility Science program offers several industry-focused degrees and certificates that are based on California’s state licensing requirements. Associate degrees and Certificates of Achievement are offered in the areas of Water Distribution, Water Treatment, and Wastewater/ Environmental Sanitation. In addition to offering Certificates of Proficiency in these areas, it also offers them in Water Conservation, Water Equipment Management and Maintenance, and Water Utility Management.

The success of these programs in meeting workforce needs is highlighted by the Bronze Strong Workforce Star its Wastewater/ Environmental Sanitation program just received from the California Community Colleges’ Strong Workforce Program. The award was for excellence related to the success of its students in finding work within the industry.

“Most of our orientation is for the technologists in the field,” says McLean, who holds a MS in Environmental Engineering from Loyola Marymount University. “These aren’t scientist jobs, but they are STEM jobs. You have to have mechanical and electrical skills, but it’s more than that. These jobs have to be executed flawlessly.”

According to McLean, in about six classes, students can get the certifications they need to secure jobs with starting salaries in the $70,000 range without even finishing their AA.

“Folks that worked for me that had no college degree after 3-5 years were making 6 figures,” says McLean. “We may not get a lot of public credit, but someone values our work and it shows up in the salaries of the people in our field. The work we do is valued.”

According to Von Lawson, Dean of the Business and Career Education Division at SCC, the “quick-career” pathways that exist in the water industry have a broader impact.

“I’ve always believed if you can get someone used to and excited about learning, they’ll want to learn more,” says Lawson. “Once you start making money, you figure out pretty quick that if you take a few more classes, you can start making a whole lot more. That’s why I love the water program. It get students into school and into a great paying career fast and it gets them excited about learning.”

Some of the program’s effectiveness comes from the close industry relationships that SCC’s program maintains with regional partners in the private and public sector. These relationships allow it to be able to respond in real-time to industry changes and workforce needs.

One such response is the Certificate of Proficiency in Water Utility Management, a relatively new program that was designed at the request of industry stakeholders in order to address the educational needs of mid-career professionals looking to advance to supervisory roles.

Another significant development has been the integration of online classes into the program.

“There are only a handful of colleges that have programs like this in the entire state,” says McLean. “So, there are vast areas around the state that are unserved. The problem of course is that those areas need system operators and clean water too, right? Now we can reach people all over the state.”

Looking to the future, McLean is excited about the opportunities his department will be able to offer through a new Water Automation certificate and a new BS in Water Science that is being developed.

The Water Automation certificate, which is scheduled to start offering classes in Fall 2019, is part of a larger set of automation-related certificates that are being developed at several different Orange County community colleges. It will prepare workers with the electrical and instrumentation skills necessary to maintain the advanced control systems that the water industry depends on to monitor various water quality and distribution operations.

Similarly, the BS will expand SCC’s program so that it can address a broader spectrum of industry-specific jobs.

“Our focus on technologists was a good one,” says McLean. “But just like other industries, that’s only a part of it. On one side, we need customer service, accounting, and billing people. We also need science people, chemists, researchers, engineers, water planners, even certified divers who can go into tanks and pipelines to inspect them from the inside. There’s a remarkable variety of careers related to the water industry.”

McLean’s hope is that this will be an ominbus-type program that can give people a firm foundation in the inner-workings of the water industry while also providing clear career paths and exceptional earnings potential.

“Our whole intent is to get interested students into meaningful jobs that serve their communities and are going to provide them a great standard of living,” says McLean. “On the first day of classes, I always tell our students that they part of the oldest, largest, and best water program in the California Community Colleges system. I fully believe all of those assertions are true.” For more information about the Water Utility Services program at SCC, please visit https://www.sccollege.edu/Departments/CareerEd/WaterSci/Pages/default.aspx.