When what lies beneath is a broken water main, a new Milwaukee training site may help get it fixed
The job of fixing a broken water main in the street can be hot and muddy or really cold, with slushy, half-frozen ground. The city of Milwaukee is hoping to attract more people to the work and convince them to stay at it — in part with a training center that recently opened on the south side.
The city has nearly 2,000 miles of water mains — larger pipes usually buried under the street that carry water to lateral pipes that go towards a house. The mains also bring water to the 20,000 fire hydrants in Milwaukee.
There are many more hydrants and miles of mains in the suburbs.
Milwaukee replaces about 15 miles of water mains each year. But when there's a sudden leak or break, the Water Works typically sends out a crew to fix the problem.
For a while, the water department's maintenance staff of about 125 had about a 20% vacancy rate, due to retirements and challenges with recruiting and retaining new workers.
City officials say a recent pay increase has reduced the problem. They also credit a new training center — paid for city water customers.
On Monday, as visitors watched from the surface, Sammie Butler knelt about ten feet underground, bolting down the bottom vertical pipe of a fire hydrant to a water main. He was basically in a wooden box with no top, with boards placed horizontally that extend to the edge to keep the walls from collapsing.
The scene took place at a recently completed Water Works training center on the grounds of the Howard Avenue drinking water treatment plant, a secure facility.
After climbing a ladder back to the surface, Butler told WUWM that the weeks of training have made him more comfortable.
"You already have the feel of what you're doing, and what to expect when you're down there. Some jobs can be harder than other jobs. That one probably looked a little easy. But, you have times when mud can be falling in. It's can be wet down there. There's water down there. But for me, it's a job I like to do," Butler says.
A recent graduate of the training, Jaiden Wilson, says he's getting used to the world of water repair.
"It's definitely different. I haven't really had a blue collar job before. I was in college before this. I didn't finish. I didn't like it. But I like this a lot. It's different every day. You don't know what you're going to go to work and do," Wilson says.
Another graduate of the Water Works training program, Julio Bou, says he won't be bothered by working when it's very hot or cold.
"Not really. Because it's fun working with all the co-workers and learning every day. All in the service of water here in Milwaukee," Bou says.
Bou adds, as more older water repair workers retire or leave for different jobs, he's ready to step up and be part of the new generation of people fixing city water pipes.
As one department official puts it, it's a more diverse work force than 50 years ago, when white males held the great majority of the jobs.
The jobs agency, Employ Milwaukee, is helping funnel trainees to the Water Works program.
The effort has caught the attention of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, as he prepares to run for reelection in the spring.
During Monday's tour, the training center had the mayor bolt down a metal repair sleeve onto a broken pipe.
The mayor soon got the hang of it.
Water Works staff and trainees eventually gave the mayor a little round of applause, and one staffer joked that they'll call the mayor when a water main breaks "at 52 degrees below zero." Probably not. But one of the new, recently-trained workers may be a part of the repair team that does get that call on a below-zero day.