Licensing and Training: Why Treatment Plant Operators Are Invaluable Assets to Municipalities

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Licensing and Training: Why Treatment Plant Operators Are Invaluable Assets to Municipalities

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After traveling to Bermuda and the United Kingdom this year and seeing how those areas handle wastewater operator licenses, I’m beginning to think we're undervaluing our licenses here in the states.

While I was in Bermuda in February and the UK in October, licenses and training were prominent topics of conversations. In Bermuda, a license is required for treatment plant operation, but they don’t have a licensing board to administer the tests. From my understanding, operators would visit the United States or Canada to receive training and take licensing exams. Then they’d return to the island to find work. Online classes are then used to maintain the license.

In Manchester, England, I attended the European Wastewater Management Conference. Operators frequently were mentioned during presentations, which peaked my interest. I decided to dig a little deeper regarding licensing. What I discovered surprised me: when an operator position becomes available, someone simply applies for it and becomes an operator when they’re hired. I personally find it outrageous that they wouldn’t require training or licensing, especially considering the complex and expensive technology involved in treatment plant operation. This is even more shocking than Bermuda requiring licenses they can’t administer.

In neither location did I hear any talk of grading licenses, training to maintain licenses or grading facilities. You can imagine the looks I received when I told them how my state and region handles operator licenses. I told them about the TCHs and CEUs needed to maintain my license. I also discussed with them the philosophy behind needing a top-level license to operate advanced wastewater plants. I’m not sure they believed such a thing could possibly exist.

Here in Massachusetts, we have Wastewater Operator grade 1-4; Municipal and Wastewater Operator 1-4 Industrial; Wastewater Operator 5-6 combined (grade 7 is granted based on experience and an additional fee); voluntary Wastewater Collection Systems Operator 1-4; and laboratory license grades 1-2.

These are licenses we need for our jobs, and we work hard to attain the highest license we can achieve. In Massachusetts, our wastewater treatment plants are graded on a scale of 1-7 based on flow, pumps, chemicals, lab, types of treatments and more. Each of these has a point value, which is tallied to give a plant an overall score. That number determines what grade an operator must be in order to lead the facility — typically they must be within one grade of the plant to be in charge.

I recently looked at the passing rates for Grade 6 licenses and saw an 18 percent pass rate for 2013-’14 based on 235 tests given. That’s fairly low. As plants become more advanced and install more technology, the need for qualified, licensed operators will increase. This goes for the private sector too, although they sometimes have the ability to lure licensed employees from municipalities with offers of better pay or benefits.

Obviously, as operators we’d like to see pay increases to match our licenses. With only 18 percent attaining Grade 6, that license should be more valuable. However, cities and towns often don’t have the ability to restructure pay scales without a major overhaul. With qualified operators moving to the private sector and advanced technology on the rise, municipalities might not realize how shorthanded they are unless they’ve looked for a correctly licensed operator recently.

So, what can towns do to keep licensed workers on the payroll, and who’s trying to enter our industry? How can younger people find their way into this field? I’ve looked at high schools and vocational schools, and there’s no curriculum offered. It’s nothing like other professions, whether it be electrical, plumbing, carpentry or even nursing. All these fields have introductory courses at the high-school level.

We need to get our profession introduced into schools and attract some young minds. The water and wastewater industry has a lot to offer — biology, chemistry, electrical, plumbing, computer work and a dynamic workday. On top of all that, those young people can grow to appreciate the importance of learning and maintaining a license they’ve worked hard to acquire.

As an industry, we have to value our licenses, and we need to continue training our existing operators. We must introduce our profession to the next generation and sell ourselves as the next green industry. And we have to emphasize the importance of advanced learning and offer pay that emboldens treatment plant operators to keep reaching higher.

About the author
Jeff Kalmes is a Grade 7 operator and plant supervisor at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the 2008 NEWEA Public Educator Award, the 2011 WEF National Public Educator Award and the 2015 NEWEA Operator of the Year Award. You can reach him at


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