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SAIT launches Water Treatment Operator program

John Barr, Water Treatment Operator student inside a chemistry lab in the Aldred Centre. SAIT Polytechnic has once more responded to industry needs with a new certificate program designed to train specialized water treatment operators for Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) facilities.

The Water Treatment Operator certificate — the first of its kind in North America — addresses the need for higher levels of expertise to operate the complex water treatment plants critical to SAGD, an enhanced oil recovery technology that uses an advanced form of steam stimulation to retrieve heavy crude oil and bitumen.

The program was developed in collaboration with the Oilsands Leadership Initiative (OSLI), a partnership between six international energy companies. Emily Lees, Academic Chair with SAIT's MacPhail School of Energy, says the program was designed based on what the OSLI members required.

"Previously there was no program offered by any post-secondary that was geared toward this particular type of water treatment, which is very different from municipal water treatment," says Lees. "OSLI interviewed several institutions and ultimately they chose SAIT to design the program."

A full class of 34 students began the program in September. The class will spend three 15-week semesters focusing on water treatment processes and equipment, plant operations and equipment, SAGD water chemistry and industrial safety and environmental regulations.

Learn more about the Water Treatment Operator Certificate of Achievement. Planning for the future

Enhancing competency for water treatment operators will not only improve production at SAGD facilities; it will also reduce the number of safety incidents and equipment downtime. Duane Kichton, OSLI project lead for the water treatment operator initiative, says the new program will also help fill a projected shortage of trained professionals.

"Using OSLI projections and information from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, we found that we could need approximately 35 operators per year over the next 10 years with those water treatment skills," says Kichton.

Dynamic classes

Water Treatment Operator student John Barr says his interest in the program was piqued after attending information sessions where he spoke with instructors and industry representatives. Now well into his first semester, he's enjoying learning from instructors who have spent years on the job themselves.

"One of my classes is an introduction to the oil and gas industry specific to SAGD. I'm really enjoying it because the instruction is fantastic," says Barr. "Its industry-experience based, it's engaging, and it's dynamic. It's more than just reading PowerPoint slides - it's interacting with someone who knows the industry."

Blended learning

The curriculum is delivered through a blended learning format that combines theoretical content offered online with hands-on practical skills in SAIT labs and classrooms. When available, an optional four-month co-op work term will also be offered between the second and third semesters.

OSLI's Kichton says companies have already expressed interest in taking on students for a work term.

"I think SAIT can provide a really good foundation through this program and companies that can use students in the co-op program will help them get exposure to the industry."

Starting salaries for water treatment operators range from $85,000 to $125,000 annually. While finding a job is ultimately up to the graduate, Kichton says there will be plenty of opportunities for those passionate about this career.

"I think the sky is the limit when it comes to what you can do with this education. You could move through operations and eventually make it to the management ladder or operate as a supervisor."

SAIT is now accepting applications for the Fall 2013 program intake.