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PBSC water treatment grad garners licenses and breaks barriers

Tara Chattergoon (left), a Class A-licensed water treatment operator for the City of Coral Springs, catches up with her PBSC instructor Karen Valiquette, who as a retired double A-licensed plant supervisor for Broward County Utilities was also her role model.

Five years ago, Tara Chattergoon had trouble keeping her head above water in a retail management career that left her unhappy and stressed out. Now she’s found great satisfaction in a career that has her testing the waters every day.

Out of 110,000 employed nationwide as water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, only 8% are women, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that hasn’t stopped Chattergoon from pursuing the opportunities for growth and rewards in this essential services career that’s vital to protecting public health and the environment.

It was a family member’s suggestion that prompted Chattergoon to look into careers at drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and call Palm Beach State College, where she spoke to Deborah Gordon, a business and education development partner in the Corporate and Continuing Education division.

Gordon told her about the College’s courses that prepare students for these careers and to pass the required state licensing exams.

“The way Deborah spoke to me, the kindness and patience in her voice, gave me hope, and from that time I knew I was going to do something more,” Chattergoon said.

And more she did.

Chattergoon on the job at the City of Coral Springs Water Treatment Plant

In January 2016, Chattergoon enrolled in PBSC’s Water Treatment Operation “C” License course. By May she completed the course with top grades, and by June, she passed the state licensing exam and was hired as a water treatment plant trainee for the Village of Tequesta.

That was the first rung on the ladder. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection awards three classes of licenses—C, B and top-level A—for water and wastewater operators. The licenses are earned in succession after passing an exam and then completing a specified number of hours on the job. After three years at the Village of Tequesta Water Treatment Plant, rising from trainee to operator and earning her C and B licenses, Chattergoon was hired in 2019 by the City of Coral Springs. Now a Class A-licensed water treatment operator, she monitors Coral Spring’s 16 million gallons of drinking water, conducts bacteriological sampling, and makes decisions on adjusting treatment to keep the water safe.

Chattergoon also recently passed the C-license wastewater exam and holds a second job as an operator trainee at the Sawgrass Wastewater Treatment Plant in Sunrise. She aims to become A-licensed in wastewater, too, which would make her a highly valued double-A licensed operator.

Chattergoon, who recently passed the C-license wastewater exam, holds a second job as an operator trainee at the Sawgrass Wastewater Treatment Plant in Sunrise.

“I love my career. I absolutely love it,” Chattergoon said. “The different treatments are so interesting, and I’m learning more and more each day. I’m just really proud that I was able to make it this far. I’m not leaving any stone unturned. I’m just going for it.”

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Chattergoon was at first skeptical about this career, thinking it was a man’s job. Indeed, she was the first female operator hired by the Village of Tequesta and is only the second woman at Coral Springs to serve as a water treatment operator. At Sawgrass, there is just one other woman operator. Yet while her gender makes her unusual in this profession, it’s her drive for learning and licenses that has earned her the respect of her male colleagues and supervisors.

“Some have said that they look to me as a leader. They’re following my example and going for higher licenses, which is great,” Chattergoon said. “Helping to motivate a co-worker makes me happy as well.”

Of course, she does want women to join the profession.

Deborah Gordon

“I wish more women would come out and do this course and further themselves like me. I know there are a lot of women out there that think they can’t do it, but I am living proof that if I can do it, anybody can do it. But you have to put your mind to it and move forward. You have to make that step forward.”

Chattergoon’s first college experience was the water treatment course, and she believes she wouldn’t be where she is today without Gordon, her instructor Karen Valiquette and Palm Beach State College. That may be true, but Gordon knows it’s not the whole story.

“When I answered that phone call from Tara five years ago, I knew that we could help her find a better career,” Gordon said. “What I didn’t know was how determined she was to change her career path with zeal and fearlessness. She has been breaking barriers and continues to shatter the glass ceiling.”

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