Apprenticeship Spotlight: Idaho Rural Water Association taps apprenticeships to fill retirements

Where does the water from our faucet go? Or maybe the water from the toilet?

Wastewater travels down our pipes to individual water districts across Idaho, where it is treated by Idaho Rural Water Association workers.

Water being tested

As a leader of dedicated employees in wastewater treatment, the organization trains and creates specialists who play a critical role in providing healthy water for our communities.

Job vacancies in the wastewater treatment industry are tough to fill.  Idaho’s retirement rate in this industry is slightly above average compared to the United States, according to Idaho Department of Labor economist Jan Roeser.

In total – 40% over the national average.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there are many people employed as water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators in Idaho — 1,410 to be exact. Breaking that up geographically, there are about 500 employed operators in rural Idaho.

Filling the talent gap that keeps Idaho’s water clean, safe and flowing comes down to recruitment and retention.

To keep employment numbers growing and to support rural communities, the rural water association is developing their workforce through a U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship program.

Idaho’s Registered Apprenticeship Program is an opportunity for citizens statewide to “earn while they learn” in an industry that sparks their interest. They gain on-the-job training, related technical training and create a connection with an employer. This in turn could lead to a potentially permanent employment opportunity.

Idaho Launch is another program offered by the state for residents to gain training opportunities to fill much needed jobs. Graduating high school seniors may be eligible for a grant paying up to 80% of their tuition and fees after high school, up to $8,000. Applying for grant funds open Tuesday, Oct. 3.

Water association apprentices gain training through the Idaho Registered Apprenticeship program to secure proper licensing in the profession. Those who participate usually pass the state certification exam the first time around through Water Professionals International. People who aren’t in the apprenticeship program are more likely to fail their first time. The approximate pass rate in the exam for people who aren’t apprentices is 43%, whereas people who are Registered Apprentices, have an 89% pass rate, according to association apprenticeship coordinator Gary Sievers.

“This exam’s fail rate is high,” Sievers said. “Just the other day, I had a mentor and work supervisor tell me their apprentice took the Class 3 Wastewater Treatment Certification Exam and passed on his first try.”

The program also provides individuals with all the tools necessary to be successful in this industry. It gives them “hands-on guidance” to complete the required 4,000 hours of on-the-job learning and 288 hours of related training instruction.

Apprentices can expect to complete the program in two years and become either a drinking water operation specialist or wastewater operational specialist. Interested applicants can apply anytime. Applicants need to be 18 years or older, have received a high school diploma or a GED and must be able to lift 50 pounds.

The average pay is about $20 per hour for operators in rural areas according to Amanda Rea, research analyst senior for the Idaho Department of Labor. The lower end of the pay spectrum ranges from $15 – $18 per hour, while the upper end of the pay grade is between $23 and $28 per hour, depending on experience.

While the association has been combatting the retirement gap for years, nearly 50 apprenticeships are underway this year, the largest amount they’ve ever sponsored.

“The Registered Apprenticeship program is learning on the job. It’s the way of the future,” Sievers said.

Learn more about the Idaho Rural Water Association from Idaho Public Television: (1) Idaho Rural Water Association Apprenticeship Opportunities – YouTube

Historical reference: Rural Idaho Seeks Apprentices for Maintaining Sewer, Water Systems | idaho@work (


The Idaho Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship program is 100% funded by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of Employment and Training Administration grants totaling $5,581,491.

Lindsay Trombly, Public Information Specialist

Idaho Department of Labor