It’s Essential to Recruit More Young People Into the Wastewater Industry

California designer Ryan Fox is riding a wave of opportunity prompted by a shortage of onsite professionals, and the demand continues to grow

It’s Essential to Recruit More Young People Into the Wastewater Industry

Fox Onsite Solutions, of San Jose, California, provides septic system design, permitting, and percolation and soil testing for a wide variety of projects. Owner Ryan Fox is shown out in the field.

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Wastewater regulation is his family’s trade, but Ryan Fox chose a different direction. He started his own onsite business in northern California, becoming a young man in a field that needs to attract young people.

In 2018, at age 27, he founded Fox Onsite Solutions. It’s based in San Jose, California, on the edge of Silicon Valley, but in addition to Santa Clara County (which contains San Jose), he also covers neighboring Monterey and Santa Cruz counties on the Pacific Coast.

Fox Onsite Solutions does design, permitting and percolation and soil testing. There are a lot of great installers in the area, he says, so his business plan is to focus on what he can do well, refer installs to other contractors and hopefully receive referrals from them. In most of his territory, he says, more than half of the systems he designs use some kind of advanced treatment with pumps, panels and intricate wiring.

At the same time, Fox sometimes finds it difficult to find installers with the required skill level to install his systems. “You know the problem with great installers? They’re busy,” Fox says. Finding skilled people is, of course, a problem for the entire industry, but for younger people just entering the wastewater business, being one of a few people can be advantageous.

Although his present equipment is light and fits neatly in his 2018 Toyota 4Runner, Fox doesn’t drive more than an hour from his base. He could, but he doesn’t. “I have 15 requests for new work. That was from this week. I could take more, but I’m in a fortunate position that I do not have to,” he says.


He grew up on a 100-acre vineyard in Fresno County. That’s about 200 miles southeast of where he lives now, and Fresno County consistently ranks among the top agricultural counties in the country. In 2021 the total value of the county’s crops was $8.08 billion.

“So I’m from a big farm background,” Fox says. “My father was a regulator. He spent his whole career in environmental health, eventually becoming a director. My grandfather was a sanitarian before my father. My uncle was a dairy inspector.”

Fox originally thought of being a dentist, but along the way found something better. “And I found, since being a farmer, I really loved the soil, and the water, and I was drawn to that.”

He went to the University of California, Davis, studied environmental health, and became an inspector. And he learned a lot, he says, because inspectors see everyone’s work. “As a designer you’re able to see only your work, or as an installer you’re able to see only your installs,” Fox says.

He also saw the people doing the work. “And I’m seeing an aging population of installers and designers,” Fox says. “I am the youngest consultant in my area by, I would say, 20 years.” He’s 32 now.

He saw people 65 and 70 years old doing physical fieldwork, but he also saw an opportunity to have his own business. He found a job with a four-day workweek, and that allowed him to start his business and spend one day a week doing consulting work outside of the county that employed him.


At the beginning of 2022 his business had reached the six-figure annual revenue goal he’d set, he says, and he went full time. He would have left that job sooner except for the COVID-19 pandemic. “At that point I wasn’t going to leave a steady, full-time job where I was getting paid very well.”

When he did leave, his departure created another kind of job gap. Not only is it difficult to find technically skilled people to install systems, Fox says, but the same is true of inspectors. Those jobs also require specialized skills, he said, but they’re a first job for many people just out of school, and it is common for people to leave for better-paying work after about a year.

That’s not the end of the workforce shortages he sees. “In California we have required yearly maintenance of enhanced treatment systems. We have nobody who can do maintenance.” People who own maintenance companies are losing workers, but this is a need that will only grow because regulations keep getting tighter, he adds.

He says he often receives questions from regulators about how they can also become consultants. Many regulators can’t, Fox says. Some lack the physical strength to sink a hand auger 6 feet into the ground for a perc test. But what will blunt the hopes of most is the lack of a very specific skill: familiarity with AutoCAD software, a standard design tool for engineers, architects and others.

“I would say my biggest learning curve, it’s not the regulations, it’s not the testing, but AutoCAD itself — creating a digital design that’s legitimate, not like a drawing on a piece of paper.” When he was planning his business, he says, he spent a couple of years taking night classes just to learn AutoCAD.


Given where Fox lives, he picks up quite a bit of work from tech industry millionaires. “San Jose is a city, but all the major million-dollar homes are not on sewer. There’s a lot of septic in Silicon Valley,” he says. “The one I’m working on now, he bought it for $4.5 million as a fixer-upper, and we’re about to add 2,000 square feet to it.”

“I would say an average system is $80,000,” Fox adds.

Unbuilt parcels are few and far between, he says. “And the few raw parcels that are left are limited. They’re cliff sides, very small lots or environmentally protected. And of course in California we probably have some of the strictest regulations due to our groundwater issues.”

Most of the systems he designs use advanced treatment of some kind. And more than half of his 40 projects this year will involve second dwellings, he said. Building costs are so high that second dwellings provide more economical housing for relatives or are used as rentals. California wastewater rules encourage second dwellings with slightly lower design flow criteria, he says. For example, a four-bedroom house has a design flow of 450 gpd by itself and about 750 gpd with a second dwelling on the same lot.

“A lot of these systems are communal. If they’re enhanced treatment, to keep the cost down we have to combine the systems,” he says. Even a standard system may have a communal drainfield, but separate tanks, he adds.

California may not have the freezing temperatures of Colorado or the high water tables and clay soils of the Midwest, but its land presents other challenges, Fox says. “We have a lot of rivers. We have a lot of hills. We have a lot of slopes.”

The onsite technology he uses is largely dictated by parts availability, he says. So he uses a lot of Orenco AdvanTex units because of good support service, because people know the equipment, and because parts are readily available. Also, he adds, Orenco AX units eliminate the need for many adjustments; they’re largely plug-and-play, which helps in an area with a shortage of technical people. Also common are products from AquaKlear and MicroSepTec.


Because he doesn’t do any installing, Fox doesn’t have any machinery in his inventory. “I usually contract most of my earth work out,” he says. It reduces his overhead, and it means he’s not paying for expensive storage space in densely populated Silicon Valley. He has a lot of hand tools, specifically AMS equipment that he uses to bore his perc test holes.

He now has three employees: Cassandra Garza, who does part-time drafting; Sterling Scott, a full-time designer; and Alexis Barretta, his fianceé, who works part time in the office. A shortage of technical workers affected his search.

“We’re getting to a point where you just don’t need a guy who can run a tractor or a consultant who can dig a hole,” he says. “You need somebody with both a physical and technical skillset with machinery, but then also a really high level of digital skills like baseline mapmaking, filling out complex permits, understanding online GIS. The time when you could just draw a square on a piece of paper is gone.”

“For me to get anybody good, I have to offer him six figures,” he adds. 

One of his ideas to attract and retain technicians is for businesses to offer performance-based bonuses. In other words, he says, when a project is finished the employee receives a percentage of the fee. “We give them a light at the end of the tunnel. We just don’t run them into the ground with no gain.”

The talent pool he’s been looking at are people in college. “When I was in college, I was an environmental major. I would have loved to work a part-time job with high wages,” he says.

This year he plans to establish a physical office with an administrative assistant, a full-time associate, and hopefully a group of two to three part-time college-level workers. They could do some of the lower-skill work such as filling out permits, some testing and some CAD tasks. Think of it as a minor-league team that can feed good players into full-time slots with the company — or another company.

“We need to expose people early to the industry,” Fox says. “We need to get them known to the industry. We need to get them to know this is a high-wage-earning industry if you’re able to do it.”

While he mostly looks ahead, he values the accumulated experience of the older installers in his area. In particular, he says, there is Chris Rummel, of Rummel Design Criteria, a former regulator himself who went out of his way to help Fox get started.

“In my area, I’m so blessed to have so many great, experienced local guys who have given back so much,” Fox says. As young as he is, Fox intends to do the same — starting now.


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