Career pivot: Unlikely apprentice gets into clean water business with new paid Jefferson County program

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Meet Brenda White, former retail worker and current apprentice at Jefferson County’s Environmental Services Department. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
Meet Brenda White, former retail worker and current apprentice at Jefferson County’s Environmental Services Department. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

The Jefferson County Environmental Services Department is in major need of new people to run the county’s nine water reclamation facilities—a.k.a. the place your dirty household water comes in and clean water goes out. Find out how an apprenticeship program is preparing people like 43-year-old single mom Brenda White for a future in the county department.

Becoming a Jefferson County Apprentice

When Brenda White was looking though job opportunities online last year, she saw an ad that stopped her mid-scroll. “Jefferson County Wastewater Reclamation Department Paid Apprenticeship,”  the Jefferson County JobsQuest ad read.

White at the Jefferson County wastewater reclamation facility in Leeds. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
White at the Jefferson County wastewater reclamation facility in Leeds. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

She was working in retail management and wanted a professional change, and this math and science based opportunity seemed right up her alley. After all, she had always excelled in both subjects throughout school, and this start-from-scratch program seemed to be the perfect way to pivot her career.  The apprenticeship was also a paying gig, allowing her to gain on the job training she’d need without shelling out the cash for a college degree.

Not long after, she was enrolled in the Jefferson County Department of Environmental Services apprenticeship program with eight other students, most of whom are all under the age of 25.

White checks the numbers in the Leeds facility lab. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
White checks the numbers in the Leeds facility lab. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

Why the Apprenticeship Program?

The Jefferson County Commission implemented this program in 2018 for a very important reason: Birmingham’s water reclamation facilities are understaffed.

“We’re dismally understaffed and struggle to staff every shift,” said Margaret Tanner, Deputy Director of the Jefferson County Environmental Services Department. “Our stable workforce that’s been around for 30 years is now retiring, and we don’t have the people we need to replace them.”

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White doing some of her self-guided study at the Leeds location. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
White doing some of her self-guided study at the Leeds location. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

Tanner says this isn’t unique to Birmingham—it’s and industry wide problem. Jefferson County is hoping that this program will help combat the problem, and provide the county with enough trained workers to staff all shifts and, eventually, fill leadership roles of those going into retirement.

“Plants are changing. The industry is changing. As plants continue to get more and more automated, we need the right people that are highly skilled in those areas.” said Tanner.

The First Jefferson County Apprenticeship Cohort

Six men and three women started the paid apprenticeship program in September. Since then, they’ve been working their way around the county’s water reclamation facilities, studying and learning how to operate the tools and machines they’ll use as plant operators.

In a few months, they’ll sit for a certification exam.  If they pass their certification exams, they’ll each be offered full time jobs as water reclamation facility operators in Jefferson County.

White at the Leeds location checking levels of solid materials that have settled to the bottom of a clarifier. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
White at the Leeds location checking levels of solid materials that have settled to the bottom of a clarifier. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

“Being an apprentice is a big responsibility here—there’s a lot of in-class and on-site training, as well as lab sampling and physical labor, which I love. There’s also a lot of self-led studying when not in the plant,” said White.

There aren’t many opportunities like this to be paid on the job while also learning the trade. Jefferson County apprentices are paid like regular county employees, receiving all benefits except retirement—that kicks in after they become full time Jefferson County employees.

White at the Leeds location checking levels of solid materials that have settled to the bottom of a clarifier. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
White at the Leeds location checking levels of solid materials that have settled to the bottom of a clarifier. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

What it Takes to Become a Jefferson County Apprentice

I took one look at her training manual and literally started sweating. There is a considerable amount of math, science and technology to wrap the old noggin around.

“This job is a challenge—I’d say it’s 90 percent math. I like to work hard, and this job requires me do that both mentally and physically,” she said.  

Applicants also have to pass a 9th grade level realistic job preview test. Other requirements include:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • Have a valid driver’s license
  • Have a high school diploma (or GED)
The lab at Jefferson County’s water reclamation facility in Leeds. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now
The lab at Jefferson County’s water reclamation facility in Leeds. Photo by Christine Hull for Bham Now

White says she is looking forward to passing the final test and starting her career in Jefferson County.

“I’m so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to change career paths. I plan to work with Jefferson County until I retire 20 years from now.”

Want to know more?

Jefferson County is accepting applications for the next apprenticeship round soon. For more information, visit The Jefferson County Jobs Quest board, call the Water Reclamation career hotline at (205) 325-1404 or email  careers@jccal.org.

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