They’re 10 years apart, from different cities and with different experiences – but this month they become Pellissippi State Community College’s first two Water Quality Technology graduates.
Brad Bales, 31, of Jefferson County, Tenn., and Jaden Goodman, 21, of Scott County, Tenn., are the first members of Pellissippi State’s original Water Quality Technology cohort to complete the program, the only one of its kind in Tennessee. They started the program in a cohort with five other students in fall 2019, four of whom are still on track to graduate in the next couple of semesters.
“Brad and Jaden have been excellent students academically, and this has been a really hard semester for them, with three Water Quality Technology classes, along with whatever other courses they needed to graduate, and a 20-page research paper and a 30-minute oral presentation for their capstone course,” said Program Coordinator Cristina Carbajo. “It is very impressive, considering all the obstacles they’ve had to face due to the pandemic. They both managed to adapt immediately.”
Bales came to the program with more than one degree in science, but no water or wastewater treatment experience.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve liked the idea of working in a lab,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the practical sciences, and the quiet monotony of a lab is enjoyable for more introverted people like me.”
Goodman, on the other hand, came to Pellissippi State only a year out from high school, but already was familiar with the industry because his father works for Plateau Utility District in Wartburg, Tenn.
“Water Quality Technology is a very good choice because the number of certified operators is dwindling as people retire,” Goodman said. “Not only will this field give me the opportunity to use on a daily basis the chemistry and engineering skills that I enjoy, but that demand means excellent job security.”
That demand is also why industry partners such as Drexel Heidel, general manager of West Knox Utility District, wanted to partner with Pellissippi State to start a program to train the next generation of water and wastewater treatment operators.
“I am still as excited about the program now as I was when we started it in 2019,” Heidel said, noting he already has had two operators retire and has another retiring in June.
Carbajo added that all the students in the first Water Quality Technology cohort already have gotten jobs in the industry, before they graduate from Pellissippi State.
“That’s the name of the game: get people trained and then get them employed,” Heidel said.
Bales has interned at West Knox Utility District this spring, where he got the unique opportunity to work at two water treatment plants that use different technologies: a conventional filtration plant and a membrane plant.
“A lot of people who have been operating plants for 30 years haven’t had that opportunity,” Heidel noted. “We wanted to get Brad exposed to both and cross trained to make his internship valuable.”
“To be an operator, you have to be a jack of all trades and know a little bit of everything – engineering, electrical, chemistry – and that’s fascinating to me because I like to learn new things and understand how things work,” Bales said as he ran multiple tests on the water at West Knox Utility District’s Williams Bend conventional filtration plant. “You have to know what to do when something goes wrong: what numbers to watch, which tests to run, listening to the different pipes and getting a sense of what is or is not going on.”
Meanwhile, Goodman got hired by Plateau Utility District part time just a year into the Pellissippi State program. He works second shift, running the same kinds of tests on that plant’s water.
“Learning about the contents of your drinking water is very interesting,” Goodman said. “Some people think there’s not a whole lot to it. There is way more than you can ever imagine.”
An advisory committee comprised of 11 utility representatives as well as staff from the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts and the state’s Fleming Training Center worked with Pellissippi State to create the Water Quality Technology program, which was specifically designed to prepare students to be able to pass the rigorous Grade III and Grade IV state certification tests. The Grade IV exam has between a 0 and 40% pass rate, Carbajo noted, which means that some years no one passes the exam.
“This is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) heavy program, with classes such as pre-calculus, microbiology, general chemistry 1 and 2,” said Cohort and Certificate Programs Specialist Brock Evans. “Some people struggle with that, but Brad and Jaden have been able to tackle all that STEM curriculum — and to do it under a pandemic? It’s not easy, and they’ve done fantastic. I think they’re both going to do great things.”
Between the Pellissippi State classes and the required three-to-six site visits per semester to utility districts throughout the region, Bales and Goodman are ready to hit the ground running once their diplomas are in hand.
“Brad and Jaden have worked so hard to graduate in two years, especially in a pandemic,” Carbajo said. “People don’t realize that you can work anywhere in the world in water or wastewater treatment, and it’s an extremely high-paying career. Here at Pellissippi State we are training students to be set up for leadership roles in the industry, and this is a lifelong career.”
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1800789. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.