WALKER — Personnel in the city’s Water and Sewer Department have started a class at Walker High School to train  students for possible future employment in municipal and other water systems where there is a demand for certified technicians.

City Chief of Staff Jamie Etheridge, introducing the program to members of the City Council at their Sept. 9 meeting, said there is a national shortage of water and sewer certified employees. He said that while discussing this problem with others, he learned that a project known as Jump Start Louisiana was also formulating plans to address the critical need for more employment opportunities for students who choose not to attend a college or university.

Etheridge introduced Wendy Montelbano, of the city’s water system staff and a certified water expert. Montelbano said data from Jumpstart Louisiana shows that 19% of high school students will attend colleges or universities and that only 4% will graduate. She added that many good jobs are available in water and sewer treatment plants throughout the nation.

“We need people to come into the industry, and that is why we decided to start classes at Walker High School that could lead students to earn certification by the time they graduate. I learned about this opportunity only a few days before school started, and I found myself teaching seven students who are interested in the program. It has been a very rewarding experience,” she said.

Montelbano said the water technology course is teaching the basics about a municipal water system and that as the class progresses she will guide the student to a path where they will become more involved in the field. As the students progress, she said, they can earn an internship with the city. Montelbano said students can ultimately earn state certification at the same time they receive their high school diploma.

Montelbano said students enrolled in her class have a science background and some mechanical skills, attributes needed by those seeking certification in the industry. She said few women have been attracted to positions in water and sewer departments, and she is encouraging high school girls to take an interest in the field.

The need for certified water system operators is very important, she said. A national publication noted several years ago that among the 10 most important jobs that workers can hold, water management is No. 2 on the list.

"A clean water supply defines who we are as a nation," she said. "We need to train people today for the needs of tomorrow."

There are about 4,100 water system employees in Louisiana and many of the certified operators are nearing retirement. Employed in the 2,800 water systems in the state are fewer than 250 certified water operators. Walker has six certified employees in its department.

In other council business:

  • Members voted unanimously to demolish an abandoned structure at 13705 Perkins Lane owned by George Perkins Jr. City Attorney Bobby King said Perkins was originally notified in August of 2018 that the city had condemned the building and had asked that he respond to the condemnation proceedings. The city granted additional time for a response and to allow Perkins to improve the property if he decided to do so. After a 180-day extension of the original request for improvements to the property, Perkins was again notified about the condemnation proceedings and again the city did not receive a response. Finally, King said, as late as June of this year, Perkins was again asked to inform the city what he planned to do with the property. With no response forthcoming after the third letter was sent, King said, the council could act on the matter. The city will tear the structure down and clean the property, and the owner will be billed for the expenses, said Mayor Jimmy Watson.
  • The council agreed to amend the city’s annual budget to add $35,000 to the general fund to finance continued improvements to the Ferrington Place House, which the city is renovating for use as a center for special-needs individuals. Those funds will come from a state grant announced at an earlier meeting. Watson said work has already started on the Ferrington Place and it promises to be a positive addition to the city, especially for those with special needs.
  • Etheridge reported that work on the Travis Street Bridge, a project that has been discussed by the council for several months, will start in October. He said a contract for the work had been rewarded and that the project should be completed in about 120 days. Bridge improvements on Brown and Elm Streets are in a “holding pattern” awaiting permits, he said.
  • The council approved the following personnel changes in the Walker Police Department: Daniel Sylve promoted from corporal to sergeant; Douglas Mincin promoted to corporal; Justin Ballard changed from reserve officer to full-time officer; Gregory Aydell and Lloyd Andel III, named reserve officers; and Ashley Sibley hired as department dispatcher.