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What did it take to become a female operator at a King County wastewater treatment plant? Ask Pam Restovic.

By April 12, 2023June 12th, 2023No Comments

Pam Restovic made history as a woman in the trades, working as a wastewater operator in the early days of the Clean Water Act. This law set new regulations to protect our nation’s waters from pollution and created new jobs across the country.

Like many women at the time, Pam didn’t envision this career path. She grew up in Santiago, Chile and immigrated to the U.S. for school at age 20. After graduating from college, she was working as a waitress when a customer who worked in wastewater operations encouraged her to apply for an open position at King County’s West Point Treatment Plant. She was attracted to the steady career and an opportunity to protect the environment.

Thirty-seven years later, Pam is a considered trailblazer and mentor to other women and people of color entering this demanding field. Our region’s treatment plants provide round-the-clock, rain or shine, essential service to almost 2 million people across King County and parts of Pierce and Snohomish counties. Pam has been at the helm operating King County’s three biggest treatment plants – West Point in Seattle, South Plant in Renton, and Brightwater in Woodinville (where she is currently employed).

Pam gained expertise to accomplish a range of jobs required to keep these complex plants running well. This includes operating heavy machinery; monitoring chemistry and odor control systems; and conducting quality checks against permit conditions. In Pam’s words, the work is always changing.

“We do what it takes to make it happen, to keep the water clean. It’s a very important job. And it’s rewarding.”

Proving it to herself

When Pam started in the 1980s, few women worked in wastewater. Those early days weren’t easy. Like many women who enter male-dominated professions, she remembers feeling pushback and a lack of guidance from other operators.

Still, she knew she wanted to stick with it. “I had to figure it out because I wanted to be there. I had to prove to myself that I could be good at it.”

While women working as water and wastewater operators has increased since the 1980s, the overall numbers remain low. As recently as 2020, just under 6% of water and wastewater operators nationwide were women. People of color represented less than 25% of the workforce, according to national data.

In King County, women make up nearly 20% of the wastewater operator workforce, while 42% are people of color. In recent years, King County has made significant improvements to advance equity and social justice initiatives at work.

Over the years, Pam’s perseverance paid off.  “I’ve seen a lot of change. There are more opportunities for women, and it’s very rewarding for me to hear that,” reflects Pam. “Some young people have come to me and said, ‘You’ve been an inspiration,’ and it gets to my heart.”

Pam works alongside operator Josh Smith at the Brightwater Treatment Plant.

Building connections

Creating positive workplace relationships have been key to Pam’s success. Throughout her career, Pam built long-lasting connections with other operators. The camaraderie and friendship among her team made coworkers feel like family. These relationships, alongside the rewarding role, motivated Pam to make a lasting career in wastewater treatment. “We support people and communities. We provide a good service, cleaning water and protecting the environment.”

A new chapter

In 2011, Pam celebrated a new chapter in her career when she pushed the button to start wastewater flows to the new Brightwater Treatment Plant in Woodinville. She’s worked there ever since as one of the essential employees that keep Brightwater running 24 hours, every day of the year.

 “It’s been so gratifying for me to see the Brightwater system come from nothing and become an operating treatment plant. That’s something I worked my whole life for.”

Pam cherishes the moment she was able to set King County’s newest treatment plant into operation. “I worked from the ground up, loyal to my trade and to King County. It was so gratifying, and a lot of effort on my part.”

Pam Restovic operates Brightwater Treatment Plant Main Control on the first day the plant started operations in 2011.

A more welcoming workplace

Operating a treatment plant can take a toll, and that toll can be higher for woman. “As operators we work really different schedules – we work nights, days, nights. Raising a family with those schedules and being a parent is very, very challenging. But it can be done,” says Pam.

Today, her workplace is a more welcoming environment for women and people of color. “I think nowadays people are willing to help and not only give you an opportunity, but also support you and make sure that you’ll be successful.”

Pam’s family provides the best endorsement for careers in wastewater. As the sole caregiver, her three sons grew up with exposure to the workings of West Point Treatment Plant. After pursuing college and different fields, two of Pam’s sons participated in King County’s Operator-In-Training (OIT) program. The OIT program provides on-the-job training for prospective wastewater employees with no experience needed. Now, they both work full time at West Point Treatment Plant.

“It’s amazing to me,” says Pam.

Pam believes the OIT program can help to recruit a younger, more diverse generation of wastewater operators.  “We need young people who see the world in a different light. People who reflect our community. We are all part of this community, and we have to represent the population in King County. These programs bring that into focus. I am so glad that I am here to see it happen.”

Pam Restovic sits on a stair of a big-rig truck and smiles.
Pam Restovic has made history as a woman in trades, starting 37 years ago as a wastewater treatment plant operator in King County.

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