Wittwer's Witticism: What is Your Why?

Aug. 25, 2022

Sorry for the July break folks but happy to return this month to annoy you with some more ramblings.

I did want to pause before going into more discussion on the future operators of our industry and the resources available to them and our employers.

I want to lay out exactly what the water and wastewater treatment industry means to me. I hope that many of you reading the article can nod your head along in agreement and, even share it with potential candidates. Honestly, the “Why” of what we do might be one of our biggest hurdles. After all, a graduating high school senior does not want to hear “because”. They have been hearing that from their parents for years. They will not respond well to the idea either if we jump right into the dirty aspects of the job, both physical and emotional. That is right, emotional. I think most veterans of our industry can agree that we are beat down more often by residents and customers (and occasionally our own employers) more than we are by the grime, heat, and exhaustion.

I know I wrote a few months ago on how the aspect of serving and being a part of something bigger was a major idea for our next generation workforce. Isn’t it the reason most of us do what we do? Many of us have been doing this work for many decades. In fact, if you missed it in several articles, our industry is expecting to lose between 30% and 50% of the workforce in less than 10 years. Despite these scary numbers, many of us will stay on long after we are eligible to retire. We might leave a long-time employer in favor of another but there will be a huge shift in one direction or another.

So why would we do that? To serve. Plain and simple. We clearly do not do it for the money, recognition, or any other selfish reason. In fact, most veterans in this industry like to say that the industry chose them, they did not choose the industry. I personally identify with that sentiment. I was going to be a classically trained tubist for a major symphony somewhere.

It was my dream, and I had no other thought. Then of course, life happened. I had a family and needed to work. Playing a tuba for a symphony does not exactly pay the bills so I took a job at a small municipality near Houston because my uncle worked there. In fact, it was so small, we were the only two public works employees. A year later I moved to a larger city next door and six months after that I was transferred to the utility department where I began reading water meters and working at the wastewater treatment plant.

Slowly, I forgot about that symphony dream. I did go back to school much later in life and get a degree in music, I even studied under David Kirk of the Houston Symphony on my own time, but this industry does not let you go. The way utility and municipality co-workers took care of my young but broke family at the Holidays. The way I felt after helping a resident with a small water leak or the feeling of accomplishment after working in a hole for hours to get a clamp on a pipe.

Having my employers pay for my school was also huge. There is no way I could have afforded to take the classes to get my operations licenses. Let us not forget about the friendships and comradery through our various professional associations. I have met people through the Texas Water Utilities Association, American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Association of Texas, and other organizations that have become my family. I have driven hundreds of miles for graduations, weddings and unfortunately for funerals.

These trivial things above may seem silly to someone on the outside looking in but to those of us that live and love our industry, they are the answers for every “Why” as well as the examples we provide when we are asked “Are you crazy?”

We are all a little crazy in this industry, especially on those days that we are covered in filth, exhausted from being in a hole all day making a stubborn repair or even after being cursed at by an angry resident. So, if you are reading this as a new operator or trying to convince a potential candidate and they say that working with crazy people does not sound desirable, then remind them of the line from Alice in Wonderland.

“But I don't want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can't help that,” said the Cat: “we're all mad here.”

Also remember, we are stronger together. We perform one of the most vital services on the planet. We are regularly surrounded by strangers that become not just our friends but our family. We are water professionals and that is the "Why".

About the Author

Clarence Wittwer

Clarence Wittwer is the owner and chief operating officer of Wittwer Environmental. He can be reached at [email protected].

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