Pellissippi State launches new program for water, wastewater tech

Lesli Bales-SherrodOn the Grow, West Knox

Pellissippi State Community College has answered the call from industry partners to start offering associate degrees in Water Quality Technology.

The new program, approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents at the end of June, started this fall and will prepare students for careers in water and wastewater treatment plants. It is the first program of its kind in the state, said Arthur Stewart, who designed the curriculum with industry partners.

“This is really important to the industry,” said Drexel Heidel, general manager of West Knox Utility District. “Some 30 to 50 percent of our certified operators are slated to retire in the next 10 years. So, we’re struggling to find people to run our plants.”

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 a program that will meet the needs of water and wastewater treatment plants. Instructional materials align with those used for state-level certifications so that graduates will be prepared for what Heidel calls “pretty rigorous tests.”

Right now, the pass rate for Class 3 and Class 4 operators in Tennessee is about 30 percent, he noted.

“There are just not enough people to go around,” Stewart said. “There is a real need here for classes that will help existing utility workers pass their state-level certifications, which will address the industry’s short-term need, and also to recruit new and younger students to the field, which will serve the long-term need.”

Pellissippi State’s Water Quality Technology program provides both operational theory and a strong practical background in mathematics, chemistry and aquatic sciences through coursework, site visits and a capstone project conducted at a local water or wastewater treatment facility.

“We came to Pellissippi State and told them our dilemma and our need for the program because Pellissippi State is the best around,” Heidel said. “We are very excited to be able to prepare students to be our future operators.”

Joshua Johnson with Knoxville Utilities Board’s Plant Operations agreed.

“Water and wastewater treatment is a career path that is vital to all healthy communities, and the Water Quality Technology Program will allow for faster onboarding of new employees in this critical field,” he said. “KUB is excited to be a part of developing the next generations of treatment professionals.”

College and industry representatives are recruiting students now for the program’s first two classes, which start this fall: Orientation to Water Operations and Regulations & Compliance. Pellissippi State’s fall semester begins Aug. 26.

Classes will consist of many off-campus visits to local water treatment facilities.

“The program will follow a cohort structure, in that students will move through their classes as a group,” Stewart explained. “Regardless of their age or their experience, students will take the same classes at the same time.”

Sixty or 61 credit hours are needed to graduate with an Associate of Applied Science in Water Quality Technology. The program goals, typical job opportunities, courses and course sequence can be found in Pellissippi State’s online 2019-2020 College Catalog or on the program’s website at

For more information, contact program coordinator Cristina Carbajo at or 865-694-6427 or Natural and Behavioral Sciences Dean Kane Barker at or 865-694-6695.

Note: 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 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Lesli Bales-Sherrod does marketing and writing for Pellissippi State Community College.

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