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Education: Water apprentice program hopes to put fizz in career path

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

There’s a problem with the water. It isn’t sexy.

And that means Georgetown County Water and Sewer District has a problem as it looks down the pipeline at its treatment plant operators. “We can count the number of people who will be gone in five years,” said Ray Gagnon, the district’s executive director. “We in the utility business are part of the problem. You turn the water on and it flows. We don’t want you to think about it. We’re not sexy.”

The district has wrestled with recruiting and training for the people whose hands are on the valves at its plant that treat the raw water customers use and the wastewater that they produce. It’s hopeful that a cooperative program with the Georgetown County School District and the technical college system will provide a steady flow of future operators.

For two Waccamaw High students who are among three participants in the program, the water apprenticeship program is a chance to get college credit, a summer job and practical experience that will bolster their college applications.

Alani Scott and Lyric Wigfall said the science aspect of the program appealed to them. “It was close to my major, which is chemical engineering,” Scott said. The water plant certification may make it easier to find a job after he graduates from college.

“It’s going to help me a lot,” Wigfall said. “I want to go into pharmacy.”

The environmental aspect of the work also appealed to Scott and Wigfall. Although neither expects to go to work for the water district after graduation, “I could see myself doing it in the future,” Wigfall said.

Georgetown County is the only school district in the region that offers the apprenticeships, said Eileen Patonay, coordinator of the Waccamaw Regional Education Center. She works to develop ties between schools and businesses.

Students take the classes online from Central Carolina Technical College, which is based in Sumter. They will also work with mentors at the utility. “They do it on their own time,” Alyssa Graham, guidance counselor at Waccamaw High, said. And they do it in addition to their junior year classes and a full slate of extracurricular activities. The tech class is supposed to take 8 hours a week. Scott works that into an after-school schedule that also includes track, band and church activities. Wigfall sings in the choir and is active in school clubs.

Scott and Wigfall were among six students who showed an interest. The water and sewer district approved $15,000 in its budget last year for three apprenticeships. The college covers the cost of tuition. “I don’t know when I’ve done a parent meeting when I thought the parents were going to hug us at the end,” Patonay said.

The district is also excited. “It’s a very difficult job to fill,” Gagnon said.

There are eight water plant operators and five wastewater operators, said Ruth Pastula, the district’s human resources manager. There are several different certifications operators can get and different levels within each. There’s a Catch-22 between getting the experience that leads to a license and getting the license that leads to experience. “It’s hard to break into,” she said.

Once in, the field is recession proof, Patonay said. “The employment options are great,” Graham said.

Marvin Neal, a Plantersville resident and former county Planning Commission member, works as a water plant lab technician for Santee Cooper’s Winyah Generating Station. He got his training from Central Carolina Tech after a career in the military. “That’s a win-win,” he said of the apprentice program. “There’s a lot of older folks that need to move out of the way,” including himself, he added.

Members of the Georgetown County School Board want to see more apprenticeships in the district for career education. “It’s a process to get the businesses certified,” Patonay said.

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