So Many Installers and Pumpers are Retiring. Who’s Going To Step Up?

Missouri reflects the dismal manpower shortages found throughout North America. Young wastewater technicians are desperately needed.

So Many Installers and Pumpers are Retiring. Who’s Going To Step Up?

 General manager Mike Lile is flanked by installers Shannon Crane (left) and Kendall San Paolo (right). (Photo courtesy of Reed’s Plumbing and Excavating)

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In Snapshot, we talk to a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. This time we visit a member of the Missouri Smallflows Organization.

Name and title or job description: Mike Lile, general manager

Business name and location: Reed’s Plumbing and Excavating, Springfield, Missouri

Services we offer: For septic systems, we do pumping, servicing, installation and maintenance. We also service grease traps and handle anything related to plumbing.

Age: 43

Years in the industry: 25

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the Missouri Smallflows Organization since 2007.

Benefits of belonging to the association: It helps keep you up to date with the new rules, regulations and technology. It keeps you in the loop with the manufacturers and what’s available as far as products and materials. There’s also the training and educational seminars. It provides you with a lot of information.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Finding and keeping qualified help to provide the services is the biggest issue facing our members these days.

Our crew includes: Shannon Crane and Kendall San Paolo are installers and Robbie Wyrick is our pumper.

Typical day on the job: I’m generally meeting with customers on wastewater issues and excavation work. I oversee the office personnel and the managers of our three departments — excavation (which includes anything from installing risers to putting a septic system in), plumbing service work and new construction/commercial plumbing. I also fill in wherever needed to see that the jobs get done.

The job I’ll never forget: We worked on a property once that had a natural spring on it and it was set between two creeks. So, it gave me a real small area to put the septic system in. I managed to get it in there and meet all the setbacks with six inches to spare between both creeks — the spring setback, the well setback and the setback to the foundation of the home. It took a lot of planning.

Other unforgettable jobs have involved systems that were not installed by us but we got called to figure out reasonable solutions to problems that developed rather than having to replace the systems. It’s usually groundwater issues or poor craftsmanship on the installation. For example, on some step-down systems we were able to put a drop box or D-box in to take some of the stress off the one or two lateral lines doing most of the work to where it was distributing over the whole lateral field equally. I probably get five to eight of those a year.

My favorite piece of equipment: Skid-steers and mini-excavators are really versatile, low impact and easy to haul. We used to use backhoes but the mini-excavator has taken over. If you add the cost of buying a skid-steer and a mini-excavator, it is more expensive than purchasing a backhoe, but you can make that up on the installation time and labor. And it does a neater job, a cleaner job on the backfill and cleanup side of the project. We’ve got four Caterpillar skid-steers and one CASE and four Caterpillar mini-excavators.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: On one project I had to deal with a lot of excess runoff surface water and groundwater. There was absolutely nowhere else to install the two tanks. We could get the lateral field up out of the drainage area but not the tanks. That posed a problem because with that came the risk of losing the tanks from being watertight. It was a pump-to-gravity system. It had a conventional lateral field but pumped up to them. When it flooded, it would get extremely close to those tanks. The first part of the solution was to get a good quality tank, which we got through Stewart Concrete. Then we spent a lot of time ensuring the risers and electrical conduit were watertight.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: The way I look at it, there’s never really a mistake. It’s all in how you take it. If it’s not a profitable job, you have to look at it from a different perspective — what you learned from it and the experience you got which helps you make better decisions in the future. And it helps you figure out what’s going on with somebody who’s having issues with a system. Somehow, some way it benefits you, even if it wasn’t financially. 

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: The most common question we get is, “Is this covered under insurance?” In one case it was. There was an old house. Lightning hit a tree, went down the roots that had grown in the septic tank, went up the pipe and then blew the toilet off the floor. It happened in the middle of the night. Insurance covered it. They put a whole new septic system in.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: One regulation that we don’t have that we should is that homeowners and commercial property owners should have to prove they’re maintaining their septic systems. In the long run, it benefits the homeowner and the general public.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: Good communication with the customer is critical. I’ve learned that over the years.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: My interests have changed a lot over the years but right now I’d say it would be doing some kind of financial investment work — real estate, stock market, finance.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: There’s always going to be a need for this industry. It’s essential for public health. But right now there’s not a lot of interest by the younger generation to fill in those positions being vacated by retirees or to handle the growth in the industry. On the bright side, with the lack of water and drought conditions in the western half of the United States, I wouldn’t be surprised if technology — sooner rather than later — would arise where wastewater is recycled and reused instead of letting it out in the environment and returning it to rivers and lakes.  


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