Michigan college degree readies students for water tech jobs

LANSING – Northwestern Michigan College has approved a pioneering two-year program to teach students how to monitor and clean up water pollution.

The degree will qualify students to be well-versed in all things necessary for water cleanup and maintenance locally and worldwide, said Kennard Weaver, a member of the Traverse City college’s board of trustees.

The college’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute offers academic, professional and research services to waterfront communities and government agencies around the country.

Until now, such a two-year water quality environmental technology degree was nonexistent, said Hans Van Sumeren, the institute director.

“I haven’t found anything similar to the degree that really focuses on what an (environmental) technician really needs to know how to do,” Van Sumeren said.

Other colleges and universities offer degrees related to water technology but lack the comprehensive coursework that Northwestern provides, he said.

The college’s board approved the degree program in late November.

“Northwestern Michigan College is the only freshwater school of its kind,” Weaver said. “It is a leader that is well-versed and an innovator.”

Van Sumeren joined the college in 2008, and right away led the development of a two-year pathway to water-related degrees. It launched a freshwater studies degree shortly after his arrival.

The idea for the water quality environmental technology degree sprouted at the same time, but a curriculum wasn’t developed until this past year, Van Sumeren said.

“We were missing a two-year workforce focus degree on water quality and environmental technology,” Van Sumeren said.

Van Sumeren also served on the Grand Traverse County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, an agency that fosters new developments and activities on sites throughout the community that were harmed by pollution.

“Most often those impacts were found in the soil and groundwater,” Van Sumeren said, adding that while the college didn’t then pursue the degree opportunity, he kept the opportunity in mind.

The water quality environmental technology degree focuses on the skills required by environmental engineering companies and other consultants performing and monitoring water cleanup projects.

Last year, the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute discovered a gap in a two-year workforce-focused degree on water quality environmental technology. An ongoing problem in the water technology industry is a severe lack of qualified workers.

“No one is training people for the specific things that we do with all the other technical skills that we are looking for,” Van Sumeren said. “And the workforce is aging. We’re not able to complete as many projects if we can’t keep our staff or find staff to build” up the industry.

The college is concerned about attracting students to the new program, but there are new job demands that need to be filled, Van Sumeren said.

The marketing gap is huge, and the college is pushing to create a campaign to exemplify the program, he said.

New degrees can also be costly and limit how much a program can deliver to its students, he said.

“I see that as probably the biggest challenge, but also maybe the one that’s most capable of being overcome because once you get the word out and people start knowing, then it becomes more organic and it grows upon itself,” Van Sumeren said.

However, the college is fortunate to have a curriculum in place that already provides a lot of resources, he said.

The college has support from Traverse City businesses and industries that have offered to provide free training and software. The Freshwater Research and Innovation Center in Traverse City is an organization seeking Northwestern graduates as technicians for field work.

It’s all interconnected, said Matt McDonough, the chief executive officer of Discovery Center and Pier, which partners with Northwestern through the innovation center.

“None of these fields operate in silos,” McDonough said. “If we’re trying out a new technology or new communications system that’s built into a buoy to be able to provide feedback, it will then allow us to do X, Y or Z. They all rely on another in terms of everything from technology development, testing and use, all with the ultimate goal of water quality protection.”

Anastasia Pirrami reports for Great Lakes Echo.

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