Municipal Water Leader
Interview

How the Great Lakes Water Authority’s Apprenticeship Program Is Building a Skilled Workforce

The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is a regional water and wastewater treatment service provider for eight southeastern Michigan counties. In order to replace an aging workforce and ensure that it has sufficient skilled employees, GLWA has established a 3-year apprenticeship program that combines paid, on-the-job training; in-house educational courses; and community college courses. The program’s graduates are offered full-time positions at GLWA. In this interview, Patricia Butler, GLWA’s manager for organizational development, tells Municipal Water Leader about how the program was designed and how it is benefiting the authority, and Etaune “EJ” Johnson, an apprentice graduate and current full-time GLWA employee, tells us about his experience in the program. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Patricia Butler: I’ve been with GLWA for 3 years. I’m in organizational development, which is our human resources department. I lead our performance management, progression development, and apprenticeship programs. My background is in strategic development, program development, and business process automation. I came to GLWA from the healthcare industry to assist with the development and launch of the performance management system and processes. 

EJ Johnson: I have been working with GLWA for the past 3 years. I started the apprenticeship journey about 3½ years ago. Right after high school, I went to Focus: HOPE, which I learned about from my father. Focus: HOPE is a third-party trade company that places people in different trades and apprenticeship groups. GLWA was one of the companies recruiting through it, and I was one of the people lucky enough to make it through the testing and interview processes. Three years of hard work and determination later, I am an electrical instrumentation control technician and work at Water Works Park Water Treatment Facility. 

A GLWA journey worker provides individualized, onsite training to an apprentice.

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about GLWA’s history and services. What is its service area, how many people does it serve, and how many employees does it have? 

Patricia Butler: GLWA is a regional authority that provides water and wastewater treatment services to nearly 4 million Michigan residents. We ensure that our member partner communities across eight southeastern Michigan counties receive water of unquestionable quality and effective and efficient wastewater services. Our member partners, in turn, provide these services to their individual end users at the local level. GLWA celebrated its 5-year operating anniversary on January 1, 2021.

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the motivation behind establishing the apprenticeship programs? 

Patricia Butler: The primary motivation was workforce development. We identified a gap in the availability of highly trained talent to fill skilled roles that are imperative to our operations. We have a number of baby boomer employees who are beginning to retire and will be retiring over the next 10 years. In addition, there’s a shortage of skilled personnel in the workforce, not just in Michigan or in the Detroit area, but throughout the United States and the world. Organizations have a hard time finding skilled trade talent. 

The second motivation is investing in our community. Focus: HOPE, which EJ mentioned, is a partner in the community whose goal is to help disenfranchised community members find viable career and job opportunities. Our partnership allows us to invest in the community and help our community members grow. 

Municipal Water Leader: What does the 3-year apprenticeship program entail, and what different stages does it include? 

Patricia Butler: GLWA has launched three apprenticeships, each of which is slightly different. The one we’re focusing on today is the electrical instrumentation control technician–instrumentation (EICT-I) apprenticeship. There are four basic stages: preapprenticeship, interviews, apprenticeship, and graduation. Before being accepted into the apprenticeship, candidates are required to successfully complete the Focus: HOPE preapprenticeship program. The program teaches basic math, writing, and computer skills and introduces the candidates to advanced manufacturing processes. After the conclusion of the preapprenticeship program, candidates are interviewed for the apprenticeship program. Upon acceptance into the apprenticeship program, the apprentices are onboarded with GLWA. 

The apprenticeship is a learn-while-you-earn model, which means apprentices have the opportunity to work as employees while they learn on the job and go to school. They are paid a salary and get employee benefits while GLWA covers the cost of the apprenticeship education courses.

A GLWA apprentice learns from GLWA journey workers.

Our program has been approved by and is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). We’ve worked to make sure that our program covers the correct competencies and includes the required number of hours. 

When apprentices begin, they’re partnered with an experienced team member (journey worker) and are rotated through our facilities every 6 months. They have the opportunity to learn the differences between the water and the wastewater sides of the organization and get a broad background on how to perform their duties. 

Our journey workers are assigned to an apprentice on a one-to-one ratio. Each apprentice works alongside a journey worker and is taught by them on the job. We’ve had great feedback on the program from our journey workers, our operations teams, and our apprentices. We also uncovered an unexpected benefit of the apprenticeship: learning is occurring in both directions. In addition to the apprentices learning from the journey workers, the journey workers are also learning from the apprentices. The apprentices are learning new concepts in school and are sharing these new approaches with their journey workers. 

Throughout the apprenticeship, the apprentices’ pay levels increase approximately every 6 months, based on their number of hours worked. At the end of the program, they receive a certificate of completion of apprenticeship from the DOL, which is a nationally recognized credential. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are all your apprentices selected from programs like Focus: HOPE, or do some of them apply directly to the program? 

Patricia Butler: Some candidates do apply directly. Apprenticeships are open to internal GLWA candidates. We also work with our recruiting team to reach out and notify the community regarding the opportunity. 

Municipal Water Leader: Since the apprenticeships are an earn-to-learn program, how would you distinguish them from other forms of on-the-job training? 

Patricia Butler: Many skilled jobs at GLWA require some experience in the water sector. While we provide training for our team members, it takes time to learn the intricacies of water processing and wastewater treatment. It may take 2–3 years for new team members to learn the job, even in entry-level jobs. The apprenticeship provides a structured learning environment from beginning to end. Apprentices are learning theory and application through the required education classes and the on-the-job learning. The time spent one on one with their journey worker mentors provides practical instruction and insight into job skills as well as encouragement and support. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are all the apprentices who complete the program offered full-time positions at GLWA? 

Patricia Butler: That’s definitely the plan. In our EICT-I apprenticeship, all 20 apprentices were offered a position, and 19 of 20 accepted. 

Municipal Water Leader: What results are you seeing from the apprenticeship program?

Patricia Butler: One is the increase in knowledge sharing between journey workers and apprentices. They learn from each other. Another is that we are able to fill positions with individuals who have the talent and training for the job. The apprentices have been here for 3 years. They understand how the facility operates and have developed relationships with the team members. We know the quality of their work. 

Municipal Water Leader: Does GLWA have plans to establish any additional apprenticeship programs? 

Patricia Butler: Yes. We are committed to expanding our apprenticeship programs. In addition to the EICT-I apprentices who graduated in June 2020, we have a maintenance technician apprenticeship going on now. We also launched a 5-year electrical instrumentation control technician–electrician apprenticeship in March 2020. We’re currently in the planning stage for our next apprenticeship, which is scheduled to launch in 2021. 

Municipal Water Leader: What process did you have to go through to get your program certified by the DOL? 

GLWA apprentices learn in a classroom setting.

Patricia Butler: It is a pretty lengthy process that requires forethought and planning. When you start working on your apprenticeship program, you should make sure it aligns with a specific job in the available occupation list sponsored by the DOL. Each of these jobs have certain requirements. For example, our EICT-I apprenticeship is a mechatronics technician program, so we took the standards from the mechatronics technician program and tweaked them. The standards are basic, but you can add additional competencies to them. You can decide whether the apprenticeship is time based, competency based, or a hybrid model. You can provide your own training or you can work with a community college, a union training facility, or another training provider. We’ve worked with a community college and union training facility thus far. We had many internal meetings as well as meetings with our training partners and the union. Once you’ve decided on all these components and have lined up your partners, you write your standards according to the DOL requirements and present your program to the DOL for its approval. Our DOL representative has been helpful in assisting us with program development and launch. After you launch your first apprenticeship, the process is easier. 

Once the apprenticeship is launched, we explain the standards to the new apprentices as part of the onboarding process. The apprentices sign a form saying they understand the standards, the pay progression, the number of hours they have to complete, and the on-the-job education they have to complete to finish the apprenticeship program. There’s a lot of back-office work every month. The apprentices have to submit their hours, and we have to review their hours and what they’ve learned. We track that information and submit it to the DOL to make sure that we are in compliance. 

Municipal Water Leader: What advice do you have for other municipal agencies that are considering establishing a similar apprenticeship program? 

Patricia Butler: Apprenticeships are a worthwhile investment. We live in a knowledge economy now. When the baby boomers retire, a lot of knowledge will go with them. We want to make sure we capture that knowledge before they leave. Apprenticeships are an effective tool to transfer that knowledge to a new generation while increasing an organization’s talent pool. Apprenticeships are also a great way to teach people what it takes to produce water of unquestionable quality. We’re continuing to learn about apprenticeships, but we are willing to share our best practices with anyone who is interested. 

Municipal Water Leader: EJ, were you interested in a career in a water and wastewater utility before you discovered this apprenticeship? 

EJ Johnson: I developed that interest through the apprenticeship. I was originally interested in electrical and mechanical systems. I wanted to get my degree in either electrical or mechanical engineering. When I was found out about the opportunity through Focus: HOPE, I was really excited, because even though I didn’t have a firm grasp of what instrumentation entailed, I knew that it was similar to the field that I wanted to go into. I jumped at the opportunity. Once I got into the apprenticeship and started working in the water and wastewater environment, I realized that I enjoyed it even more than I expected. Not only is it along the lines of what I already was interested in, it also incorporates the tremendous water treatment process. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your experience in the program and some of the things you have learned? 

EJ Johnson: The mechanics and the overall process of water treatment is intriguing to me. Water is something we take advantage of without putting much thought into where it’s coming from. If you’re part of an entity that provides water, you know how much effort goes into the water treatment process. 

Another good part of the apprenticeship was bonding with the other apprentices. For the past 3 years, I’ve gone to school with, worked with, and shared knowledge with the same group of 20 apprentices. 

In addition to learning about the water treatment process, one of the most effective and important skills for anyone working in the mechanical or electrical field is troubleshooting. That’s a hard skill to cultivate. It’s the process of being able to actively think through and eliminate the possible causes of a problem. It sounds trivial, but nailing that skill and being able to do it within a certain time frame is a difficult thing. I think one of the biggest assets I gained during my apprenticeship was learning the right way to approach the troubleshooting process. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your experience working one on one with a journey worker? 

EJ Johnson: It was interesting. One thing I immediately recognized as I began to rotate around the system is that everyone is different. Everybody has a different way of looking at things and troubleshooting. It was valuable to learn the different ways to get the job done. We also learned how to relate to different people’s personalities so that we could effectively learn from them. Some people are really open, expressive, and sociable. Some people aren’t as sociable, and that’s perfectly fine, but you have to know how to adjust how you address them. Showing respect to everybody you work with is important; that way, others will respect you, guide you, and share their knowledge with you. They had what I was trying to get, and I’m glad that they gave it. 

Municipal Water Leader: What advice do you have for anybody who is considering this apprenticeship program? 

EJ Johnson: Stay dedicated and focused. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a journey worker during the apprenticeship was that in the field of instrumentation, one of the most valuable things that you have is your name and your reputation. If you’re known for not doing the job right or not completing it satisfactorily, that reputation will stick. If you’re known to be an exemplary employee who always gets the job done, opportunity is going to come to you. 

When you know that your raise is guaranteed every 6 months as long as you complete your hours and do your schoolwork, it would be easy to fall into a groove. Instead, I advise people to put in the extra effort. Put in the extra study time. Actively research your field on your own time. Actively probe people for more knowledge. Go that extra mile, and it will pay dividends. 

Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything else either of you wanted to add? 

EJ Johnson: GLWA offers all employees and apprentices a tuition reimbursement program. I definitely plan on taking advantage of it to further my education as I continue to work with GLWA. My goal is to get my bachelor’s degree in engineering. 

Patricia Butler: There is also a State of Michigan free tuition program called Futures for Frontliners that helps essential workers who worked on site during the pandemic complete their associate’s degrees or obtain a certificate of completion. We want to make sure that our team members know that it’s available to them. The state’s program and GLWA’s tuition-reimbursement provide an excellent opportunity for our team members to continue their education. Our team members have been awesome in ensuring that we continue to keep the water flowing and provide water of unquestionable quality during this pandemic. We’re really proud of our team members. They’re essential to the overall success of our region. 

Patricia Butler is the manager for organizational development at GLWA. She can be contacted at glwa.careers@glwater.org. 

Etaune “EJ” Johnson is an apprentice graduate and electrical instrumentation control technician at GLWA.