An Aging Workforce Remains Our Biggest Challenge

A Wisconsin wastewater pro echoes a common industry theme: We need enthusiastic young people entering the field

An Aging Workforce Remains Our Biggest Challenge

Ann Cataldo, lead soil tester and master plumber, doing soil testing using a Takeuchi TB045.

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Name and title or job description: Todd Stair, vice president. I wear all hats — master plumber restricted, soil tester, septage operator, customer contact, bidding, some design work, some soil testing, training, safety.

Business name and location: Herr Construction (fourth generation in the industry), Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in the “Lake Country” area of the southeastern part of the state 

Services we offer: Soil testing, septic system installs, sewer and water work, sewer camera, sewer sectional lining, excavating, drainage, stormwater systems, trucking and excavating. 

Age: 58

Years in the industry: 32

Association involvement: I have been on the Wisconsin Onsite Water Recycling Association (WOWRA) board of directors most years since the mid-1990s. I was president from 1997 to 2001 and was again recently voted in as president.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Benefits include having legislative representation, staying at the forefront of laws affecting our industry, education and continuing education hours, the annual conference with lots of great classes, other training throughout the year, and networking to learn from colleagues and regulators.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: The graying of the industry. Membership numbers are low. Where’s the next generation?

Our crew includes: We have amazing people, starting with my wife, Peg Stair, and Kelly Reese in the office. Ann Cataldo is lead soil tester and a master plumber. Jeff Reese and Ben Hilmer are crew leads. Mike Esguerra and Chris Brezinski are pumpers, have their plumber learner cards and drive the dump truck. Jason Strankowski, Jeff Christensen, Jeremy Wagie, Nate Strankowski and Dakota Wirth round out the crew. And Mark Ridgman, our mechanic, keeps everything running. We strive for everyone to have as many licenses as we can help them achieve — plumbing, soil testing, pumping, well pump installation, commercial driver’s licenses. 

Typical day on the job: Although no day is typical, mine usually includes getting crews prepped in the morning, helping to get the day’s initial schedule complete (and it changes frequently), meeting with potential customers, bidding jobs. I perform soil tests when needed, help out on crews when short-handed and, when the schedule dictates, I do some of our sewer camera work. 

The job I’ll never forget: We installed a replacement private onsite wastewater treatment in-ground system (POWTS) for a national TV show called Extreme Home Makeover. The first thing that stuck out is that the streets were lined with people waiting for the show to start filming — and the first thing that came down the street was our pump truck, as we had to pump and abandon the existing septic system. Crowds on both sides of the street cheered. I’ve never seen hundreds of people cheer a pump truck before. Then there were storms and tornado warnings and we had to remain on standby. When we finally got the okay to install the septic system it was 10:30 p.m. We installed the system under artificial lighting and had to wake up the inspector in the middle of the night. He was very understanding about it.

My favorite piece of equipment: While the excavators are extremely important in our industry, I’d have to say my favorite tool is the sewer camera (RIDGID). It’s such a versatile tool and we’re using it more and more. To be able to both visually see a sewer problem and accurately locate it is something previous generations could not do as efficiently. 

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We did a job far up on a wooded knob of a site that was a straight drop-off on three sides. We did the septic prior to basement excavation. Every grain of soil had to be hauled offsite. Of course they waited for the middle of winter to begin the project. We had dump trucks driving down very dangerous wooded roads in pure ice conditions.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: We learned the hard way not to base a bid on information someone else gives us. We’re currently working on a project where we trusted the information a municipality provided and are now digging ourselves out of a lose-lose situation. A little tiny honey-do turned into three days of digging up someone’s yard. Moral of the story — do your own due diligence or risk losing money.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: “How many holes should I shoot through the 55-gallon drum I’m installing as my septic system for my hunting cabin up north?”

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I’d like to see more uniformity. It’s frustrating when one municipality requires something different than another.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: Rich Herr, owner of our company at the time he hired me in 1989, said, “Any work you do, do it as you would want it done at your own home. Think every job is your own house, do excellent work and don’t skimp on any facet of what you are doing.” Everyone at our company lives that advice on every job. 

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I love astronomy, science and wastewater treatment so it would probably be something in the field of science.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I am hopeful the younger generation steps up with as much passion for what we do as we have. I hope they keep improving POWTS treatment and protection of groundwater in ways we haven’t even imagined. And, thirdly, I sincerely hope our industry changes the paradigm of water use and guides our nation to understand the importance of stormwater as a resource for non-potable purposes, as we work every day with the tools to make that happen.


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