An Oregon operators’ group devises certification review classes to help professionals from around the state improve success on exams.


Certification exams often stand as obstacles to operators’ advancement. Exam failure rates can be relatively high, and some operators fail exams on repeated tries.

An operators’ group in Oregon is looking to remedy that by offering comprehensive two-day review classes for those seeking certifications for wastewater treatment plant and collections system operations.

The Umpqua Basin Operators Section (UBOS), one of six local sections of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association, offers the class in March in cooperation with Umpqua Community College. Two separate sections are offered, for Grades I and II and Grades III and IV certifications. The courses allow operators to review information appropriate to the level of certification they are seeking, improve their wastewater math skills and work together in small-group problem-solving sessions.

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Steve Miles, a systems asset manager with Orenco Systems Inc. and an Oregon Grade IV certified operator, is a member of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Operator Certification Advisory Committee and worked with the UBOS group to develop the review classes, which are open to operators all around the state. Miles talked about the classes and their benefits in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Why did UBOS develop these classes?

Miles: The Operator Certification Advisory Committee often discusses exam passing rates and other issues, and I bring those issues back to UBOS. One thing we were looking at was some sort of operator certification review class. We had one or two in Oregon, but they were rather generic one-day classes covering both water and wastewater operators. We wanted to create something more specific to wastewater and collections system operators.

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TPO: What did the pass-fail rates look like in Oregon?

Miles: At the upper grades, III and IV, we were seeing only about half the people pass, and quite a few folks were taking the exams multiple times and still not passing. At Grade I, the passing rate was probably 70 to 80 percent, and at Grade II maybe 60 to 70 percent. As we moved up the ladder there was a lower percentage of passing. It’s probably the same story throughout the country. Of course at the higher levels more difficult and complex questions are asked, and that’s what we want, because at those levels operators are accepting more responsibility and running bigger and more complex plants.

TPO: Why did you see review classes as a potentially good remedy?

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Miles: We were looking at ways to help operators study for the exams. For most operators it has probably been quite a few years since they were in school. And one of the areas they seem to struggle with is mathematics. We wanted to provide something that wrapped everything together — math, wastewater operations, troubleshooting.

TPO: Why did you decide to work with a community college to offer the classes?

Miles: UBOS has often coordinated with Umpqua Community College. In the past few years we’ve worked with them to put on short schools and conferences. They have a community education department specifically to support offerings like those. We have expertise in the wastewater business, so we developed the course. The college helps us with the registration, the paperwork, the promotion and collecting the course fees. They are used to doing all that and they have the staff to do it. We charge a fee to cover our cost and pay our instructor. After the class, some of the money goes to UBOS for scholarships and other purposes, and some goes to the college’s community education department. So it’s a win-win.

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TPO: How did you arrive at the structure for the classes?

Miles: We decided we really needed to break it down. We didn’t want to teach Grade I material to folks trying to get to Grade III and IV, and vice versa. So we split it into a two-day session for Grades I and II and a two-day session for Grades III and IV. We include both collections and treatment operators because there is a lot of overlap between those two areas. Maybe in the future we’ll break it down even further and offer separate treatment and collections classes.

TPO: Who is the instructor?

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Miles: We’re fortunate to have Michael Fritschi, who is general manager of South Suburban Sanitary District in Klamath Falls. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering, has taught sanitary engineering practice and management, has experience in public works and holds a Grade IV wastewater operator certification in Oregon. He is a very sharp, engaging teacher, and folks really seem to enjoy his teaching style. He was a perfect match for us because he’s not very far from our location and has plenty of experience.

TPO: How well have operators embraced these classes?

Miles: Last year was our third year, and participation has increased every year. For the classes last March we had 27 participants in Grades I and II and 22 in Grades III and IV.

TPO: What does the curriculum for Grades I and II include?

Miles: The first day covers wastewater math necessities, sanitary sewer flow rates and velocities, influent loading and preliminary and primary treatment. The instructor then has the class break up into groups and solve problems. That allows the folks who understand a little better to help the others. At the end of the day they do some practice testing. The second day goes into collections and lift stations, secondary treatment, sanitary sewer construction, disinfection, lab methods and operational tools. At the end, each person does a practice exam.

TPO: What about the class content for Grades III and IV?

Miles: For the upper levels the topics change. They still cover math and they get into solving wastewater word problems, where they have to take a sentence or two describing a problem and make it into an equation. A lot of operators have difficulty with that, so we give them plenty of examples. Then they delve into wastewater management issues, safety and maintenance, as well as the basic wastewater topics at a higher level of complexity.

TPO: How does the class help operators improve their math skills?

Miles: We teach a technique called dimensional analysis for solving wastewater problems. It shows a way to convert equations to make it easier to get to the right answer. For most operators it’s a new way of looking at math problems. There’s also a method called the Davidson Pie that’s used for determining mass, concentration and flow rate. If you visualize, it’s a circle divided in half with the bottom half divided into thirds. Operators have called it the Circle of Life because it has saved a lot of them by helping solve some of the math problems.

TPO: What about general advice on how to succeed on exams?

Miles: There are some test-taking techniques to learn. Oregon uses 100-question multiple choice exams. We advise operators, for example, to look at each question carefully and really understand what it is asking. Is it asking for gallons? Milligrams per liter? They need to make sure they understand the question before giving an answer.

TPO: How does taking the classes affect the need for other exam preparations?

Miles: We emphasize that these review classes are not a substitute for studying. Operators still need to do their due diligence. We recommend they study for exams well in advance. There are plenty of books out there to study from. The courses are just a good opportunity to review, practice and ask questions. When you study by yourself, you have nobody to ask. In a class the instructor can give you the clues and hints you need to figure things out.

TPO: Have you been able to measure the impact of these classes on pass-fail rates?

Miles: Statistics on that are not available, but based on operators’ feedback the classes definitely appear to be helping. After taking the exam, operators have told us they thought the review course helped them quite a bit. They’re real happy they took the course and they come back for more if they’re trying to go to the next level.

TPO: Do these classes qualify operators for continuing education credits?

Miles: Yes. Operators in Oregon need two CEUs every two years to keep their certification active. The Oregon Environmental Services Advisory Council has approved the review courses for 1.2 CEUs. This helps make them more attractive to the operators and to the city or utility managers who need to approve and pay for the operators’ attendance.

TPO: What advice would you give to other operator groups who might like to replicate these classes in their areas?

Miles: First, get together as an association and start a discussion. If you have a local community college, go talk to their community education staff. Chances are they will be excited to help. Then find an instructor — and it doesn’t have to be just one person. You could have three, four or five or more. You might pull in one person for a math session, another for process control and so forth, just as it’s often done for conferences and short schools. Ideally a group would work together to create a syllabus and then start contacting local people in the industry. You can also ask your regional association to help you out.

TPO: Ultimately, what is the value of these review classes?

Miles: Most people don’t realize that a wastewater plant and collections system make up the biggest asset a typical community owns. They represent millions and millions of dollars in assets. We need highly qualified operators to run these valuable systems that help protect public health and the environment. It’s worth putting in time to educate and train operators not only to pass the exams, but to do the best job they can at the plants where they work.   


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