Maine’s coordinated training program draws on a host of resources from the wastewater community and from vendors, consultants and others
With a staff of only two, you would think an organization responsible for training all wastewater treatment plant operators in a state would be stretched beyond the breaking point.
That is not the case in Maine, where the Joint Environmental Training Coordinating Committee (JETCC) depends on partnerships with plants, equipment and supply companies, regulatory agencies, and operators themselves to keep plant operators fully licensed and certified.
The success of JETCC shows in the 2010 Regional Wastewater Operator Training Provider Excellence Award its training coordinator Leeann Hanson recently received from the U.S. EPA. Hanson and administrative assistant Spring Connolly have the job of pulling together resources to develop and present training, keep records, process license applications, and administer twice-yearly testing.
Hanson, who began her tenure with JETCC in 1992, talked about the award-winning program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: What is the history of JETCC?
Hanson: It was formed in 1985 to help the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Wastewater Control Association develop training and continuing education programs for wastewater treatment plant operators. The two organizations didn’t have the resources to do it themselves, so JETCC was created as a nonprofit training entity. JETCC is administered through the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission. JETCC is just one of NEIWPCC’s many projects throughout New England and New York. NEIWPCC was established by Congress in 1947, and is one of the nation’s original interstate compacts. NEIWPCC is well known throughout the region for its wastewater operator training programs.
I am the facilitator for JETCC, not a trainer. We rely on volunteers to do the training. They include municipal and industrial operators, regulators, consultants; pretty much anybody who works in the wastewater field could be tapped to teach a training class and share their expertise and professional knowledge.
TPO: How many classes do you offer?
Hanson: We offer 25 to 30 wastewater training programs every year, many of which are suitable for drinking water operators. We average more than 800 operators trained every year. I work with about 100 volunteers to teach, host, and facilitate the classes at various locations around the state.
Some of the programs involve multiple sessions, such as the two Basic Wastewater courses we offer every year. We offer 24 hours of instruction over six weeks in spring and fall. Each six-week course counts as one class.
We also help the state with the training it offers for erosion control, septic system installation, stormwater management, and environmentally friendly landscaping. Those classes reach another 1,500 people a year. We help publicize the classes to targeted audiences, process registrations, and following the model used with our wastewater classes, we package the registration material and certificates for the person hosting the class. When those classes are complete, everything is returned to us, and we circulate the information to the pertinent agencies.
TPO: Who develops the training material?
Hanson: Once a year, we have a brainstorming session where trainers, operators and interested parties share ideas. I’ll work with individuals to develop a class out of the identified topics. For example, someone suggests something like blueprint reading, and then an engineering firm will work with their people to develop a six-hour class. Often a group of operators has solved a problem that still challenges others. Working together through JETCC, we structure their experience into a training session.
We may combine lab people from municipal plants and commercial laboratories along with a DEP regulator. Or maybe we’ll put a couple of consultants together to teach a course for a day. JETCC works on packaging and advertising the program and will work with a local host, such as an operator at a treatment plant with a large conference room, who serves as the point person on the day of the class.
TPO: What is the format for training?
Hanson: It’s mostly classroom, but we try to incorporate hands-on elements as much as we can. We have a manhole repair class that goes out into the field, works with the equipment, and goes through confined-space procedures. We’ve done pipe pigging classes where equipment is set up and a line is actually cleaned. A lab class may involve multiple stations with lab equipment.
One thing we’ve always tried to do is make sure we can empower operators to play a role in the training. Often somebody has a lot of expertise and wants to help but is nervous about speaking before a group. We would start that person as a volunteer host. The next time they may play a small role in a panel discussion. I’ve seen a number of people like that who eventually lead a class.
TPO: Do you see any gaps in wastewater training?
Hanson: The basic technical skills are always needed, like pump operations, standard lab procedures, and new regulatory issues. One thing we keep talking about, in Maine, and across the country, is bringing new people into the industry. There is an impending shortage. Within the next five to 10 years, a number of people will retire, and we need to develop a consistent, ongoing training program to recruit new people.
We’ve been teaching the six-week Basic Wastewater course each spring and fall for the last three years. It meets once a week and involves multiple trainers, multiple facilities, and tours different plants. That takes a fair amount of coordination. Hand-in-hand with that is training existing operators to move up to management positions, and developing ways to share institutional knowledge.
TPO: Those two are related to succession planning. What is JETCC doing in that regard?
Hanson: We started a Management Candidate School in 2009-2010 that we modeled after the Rhode Island Wastewater Operator Management Boot Camp (TPO, July 2009). We brought people in from all over the state to meet once a month for 12 months (October to September) to teach management skills. We had 17 people in our first class. Our second 12-month course started in October 2010 with 22 students and we’ve added drinking water operators. Roughly 40 industry professionals have assisted as trainers in these programs.
We also need to develop tools to document institutional knowledge so it can be passed on as people retire. There are a lot of people who have been in the industry for a long time who have knowledge in their heads. It’s really hard to transfer that knowledge.
TPO: Is there anything else the industry needs to do to improve training?
Hanson: We have aging infrastructure and we need to educate the people who hold the purse strings — the general public and municipal officials — to understand that we must maintain infrastructure integrity. That’s a real struggle, and we as an industry are probably missing opportunities to publicize the good work we do.
TPO: Why do you think the EPA selected JETCC for special recognition?
Hanson: Thanks to the volunteers and everyone who helps us, I think JETCC is well respected in the industry and we are innovative. There are many examples of partnership, collaboration, and a willingness to take risks with new topics. We’re also doing a lot on very little funding; it’s all but been eliminated. Still, we provide a quality product and there is a lot of ownership for JETCC from people in the field.
TPO: What obstacles do you find in presenting effective training?
Hanson: Probably the biggest is the size of our state. It’s such a distance from north to south; somebody always has to travel. For a municipality that’s letting an operator off work for a day, that great class may be four hours away, so it’s going to involve travel, and perhaps an overnight stay.
Some of the unique classes may involve multiple speakers, and it’s hard to get those classes out to the farther reaches of Maine because the trainers have to travel three or four hours. As we know, education budgets are often the first to be trimmed. When you’re looking at dollars and cents, people don’t always realize how much information wastewater operators need to have in order to do their jobs.
TPO: Is there perhaps an answer to that in distance-learning technology?
Hanson: We haven’t used that yet, but we’re working on developing a distance-learning curriculum with our Basic Wastewater course. We still find face-to-face training has some qualities that are hard to match over the Internet.
It’s not just the presentation time that is worthwhile to operators. It’s also the conversations and camaraderie that develop within a group of like-minded people. That training class may be the one place where they get out of town and mix and mingle with other operators facing the same challenges. They’re so busy doing their jobs that they don’t often have that opportunity.
TPO: What are the biggest changes in your years with JETCC?
Hanson: The costs of producing and presenting training and the costs associated with attending training have gone up, while funding for wastewater training on a regional and national level has diminished significantly. We’ve started seeking sponsorships for portions of the classes. We started doing that last year and are doing it more intensely in 2011.
TPO: What is your advice for operators when it comes to training?
Hanson: Be prepared for anything and take as many courses as you can. There is always something to learn even if you don’t see it as immediately related to your day-to-day operation. Be open to public speaking, get involved in your community beyond your job, and put yourself in situations where you can talk about the importance of your work or just to get the experience of speaking.
There are a lot of opportunities in this industry to excel and move up, should you want to. For those who don’t aspire to management positions, realize that what you are doing is making a significant contribution your community.