Alcosan targeting young future workers in hopes of landing talent
If young Dontae Hall ever visits Niagara Falls, he'd be more interested in seeing hydroelectric turbines than taking a side trip to a wax museum or amusement park.
“The turbines are what I'd really like to see,” Hall, 16, a junior at Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy in Oakland, said during a recent tour of the renewable energy lab at the West Hills campus of Community College of Allegheny County in Oakdale.
Hall is one of about three dozen students enrolled in Pittsburgh Pipeline, a state-funded program run by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. It offers summer programs and tours of facilities related to the water and energy industries.
Alcosan's interest in young students is no accident.
Although they are too young to work now, such scientifically and mechanically inclined students will become increasingly important to Alcosan in the next 15 years as it embarks on a $2 billion plan to upgrade the region's wastewater treatment system.
To meet the labor and engineering demands of the biggest public works project in the history of Western Pennsylvania, Alcosan is running after-school and summer programs, and has started visiting middle schools to interest students in jobs for the project.
“It's important that students have an understanding of the wet weather plan. Lots of kids are not aware of this project at all, and it really could mean jobs for some of them,” said Twila Simmons-Walker, Alcosan's manager of scholastic outreach and education.
Alcosan will submit its wet weather plan for approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late January. It expects construction to begin in three or four years and be completed by 2026.
Under a plan released in July, Alcosan would built at least 10 miles of tunnels to convey and store stormwater. They would run from its North Side treatment plant to Lawrenceville along the Allegheny River, and from Panther Hollow in Oakland along the Monongahela River.
The tunnels, 150 feet below ground, would be 50 feet deeper than Alcosan's 1950s-era main lines.
No one knows how many jobs the project will spur, said Dave Bornemann, director of engineering and construction at Alcosan. It will require engineers and skilled workers such as electricians, sheet metal workers, steamfitters, plumbers and bricklayers.
“This is a sustained construction program that will go on for at least 10 years. We are looking at the numbers to see what level of people we already have and to make sure we have a workforce that could support this kind of project,” Bornemann said.
Although much of the piping work is years away, Pittsburgh Plumbers Local 27 has increased apprenticeships, said Ron Reiber, the union's business representative.
“Local jobs for local people, that's our top priority. We have always taken in more apprentices when there are large projects like the stadiums, casino and the new Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville. We will do the same for this,” Reiber said.
The plumbers' apprenticeship projects last five years. Candidates for such training are tested for ability with mechanical reasoning and spatial relations, he said.
Equally important is attracting students to engineering, said Tom Donatelli, president of the Engineering Society of Western Pennsylvania.
“Alcosan just has a tremendous amount of work they are anticipating, and they are really trying to get out in front of it,” Donatelli said.
Such big projects always require workforce development, said David N. Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association.
“If there is not an adequate workforce, people would need to be brought in from out of town. That would add to cost and probably put them behind schedule. So it's good they are planning now,” Taylor said.
Alcosan's wastewater upgrade would increase treatment capacity at its Woods Run plant from 250 million gallons a day to 480 million gallons for primary treatment to remove solids, and to 295 million gallons for secondary treatment to clean the water. The plant expansion is expected to cost about $300 million.
Alcosan serves 836,600 customers across 309 square miles.
Dawniesha Sloan, 17, a Brashear High School senior, is thinking about studying environmental science, a field that could be vital to the project — depending on how “green” Alcosan's final plan becomes by using nature to help keep stormwater out of the sewer system.
“I think there will be a lot of jobs in renewable energy,” she said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.