Waste Treatment Specialist Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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A waste treatment specialist earns an average salary of about $46,000, but is it worth the training requirements? Get the truth about the job duties and career prospects to decide if it's the right career for you.
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A Waste Treatment Specialist Career: Pros and Cons

A waste treatment specialist keeps treatment equipment clean and maintained, uses chemicals to treat waste and conducts tests on water and sewage. Here are the pros and cons of becoming a waste treatment specialist:

Pros of Becoming a Waste Treatment Specialist
No postsecondary education required (high school diploma is sufficient)*
Few applicants mean little competition for jobs*
Performing an essential duty means high job security*
Higher-than-average salary (water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators earned an average salary of about $46,000)*

Cons of Becoming a Waste Treatment Specialist
May be required to work holiday, weekend or evening shifts*
Injury and illness rate is higher than most industries*
Must pay close attention to detail to ensure safety of water**
Must be licensed by the state*
May go home dirty (work often takes place in unclean areas)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net

Essential Career Info

A waste treatment specialist typically works at a waste treatment plant to safely dispose of hazardous materials and remove any of the harmful products that may come from wastewater. Since the treated water is usually put back into the clean water supply, the wastewater needs to be carefully handled and treated to avoid harming any people. In addition to treating water, you'd be responsible for testing the water and cleaning treatment tanks and filter beds.

You'll be around a number of chemicals, including chlorine, ammonia and lime. These chemicals are used to destroy most bacteria and counteract other hazardous chemicals found in wastewater. Water needs to be treated 24 hours a day, so waste specialists need to be on staff at all times. You'll usually be assigned to a shift, which means you might be working at odd hours or on holidays.

Salary and Job Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that water and wastewater treatment workers earned an annual median income of approximately $44,000 in 2014. The National Center of Education Statistics reported that workers who were aged 25-34 and had a high school diploma earned a median salary of about $25,000 in 2009, so you can see that waste treatment specialists have higher earning potential than most other workers who only have a high school diploma.

Employment opportunities for waste treatment workers were projected to grow by 8% from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. Although this growth was about as fast as the average of all occupations, job prospects should be excellent. As populations continue to grow, the demand for waste treatments specialists will remain high.

What Are the Requirements?

You'll need to finish high school if you want to become a waste treatment specialist. Some employers may prefer candidates with an associate's degree or a certificate in water treatment, but these are typically not required. However, you'll need to be licensed in the particular state you wish to work in. The BLS mentioned that most states have different regulations regarding the amount of training you need to become licensed, and many states offer multiple levels of licensure. Requirements could range from a few months of wastewater treatment experience to three years of experience plus education relevant to wastewater treatment. You'll usually need to pass an exam before you are granted a license.

What Employers Are Looking For

Waste management facilities require you to have a wastewater treatment license or have the ability to get one shortly after being hired. In addition, a strong mechanical ability and possession of a driver's license are often wanted by employers. Here are some job postings from March 2012:

  • A wastewater treatment facility in Louisiana needs a waste treatment operator who has a high school diploma and a valid driver's license. The facilities are mostly outdoors, so the candidate needs to be comfortable working outside any day of the year and be able to lift 50 pounds. Applicants should have a strong aptitude for working with mechanical objects.
  • A wastewater facility in Michigan was looking for a waste treatment mechanic with a valid driver's license. Candidates should have a year of experience with mechanical and electrical repair work.
  • A wastewater plant is looking for a wastewater operator to maintain facility equipment and write daily logs. Applicants must be willing to be on-call every five weeks and be able to obtain a class one waste treatment license.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Gaining mechanical skills can give you an edge when searching for a job. Many employers are looking for applicants who are comfortable making repairs and who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. Since you'll need to become licensed, knowing what is required to work in a particular state can help you plan how become licensed. You can generally start preparing for the exams before you're employed, which may make you more enticing to employers looking for entry-level workers.

Completion of an academic program may be required for higher levels of licensure and could lead to advancement opportunities. However, it may be a good idea to get your foot in the door before you spend the time and money it takes to complete a postsecondary program. You can also gain an edge over other waste treatment specialists by obtaining a higher level of licensure, especially if you're hoping to advance to a supervisor position.

Alternative Careers to Consider

If you're unsure if working with wastewater is right for you, then perhaps you might be interested in becoming a power plant operator. A power plant operator monitors and reviews the flow of electrical power into an energy grid system. Similar to waste treatment facilities, power plants operate at all times throughout a year, so you may be required to work holidays and weekends. This job also requires you to be licensed, although the requirements depend on what type of plant you work in. Although little to no job growth was expected for power plant operators during the decade of 2010-2020, you could still have good job prospects if you have mechanical skills and training related to power plant operation. Most positions do not require any education beyond a high school diploma. You'll typically have great earning potential in this field; the BLS reported that power plant operators earned an average salary of about $64,000 in 2011, and nuclear reactor operators made an average of approximately $78,000.

Chemical plant operators work with a variety of chemicals similar to those used by waste treatment specialists, but they do not have the pressure of dealing with a water supply that is being used by the public. A chemical plant operator monitors the chemical production process, records data and takes samples to ensure quality. This occupation is found in many different industries, since operators are needed to create, mix or dissolve chemicals used for manufacturing products. Hazardous environments may pose a safety risk for you and other workers if proper precautions are not taken. A high school diploma is normally sufficient for this occupation. Although opportunities for chemical plant workers were projected to decline, you should have solid earning potential; these professionals earned an average annual wage of roughly $55,000 in 2011, according to the BLS.

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