Partners in Training

Minnesota regulators and operators work together on educational programs to advance knowledge in treatment plant and collection system processes

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Since the 1970s, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has offered an extensive wastewater training and certification program.

It began with an Annual Sewer School and grew to include training in a variety of topics, including activated sludge, stabilization ponds, laboratory, trickling filters, spray irrigation, aerated ponds, lift stations, supervisory management, land application of biosolids, wastewater treatment technology and collection systems.

The size of the training unit has declined with budget challenges, notably during the recent economic decline. Still, MPCA continues to sponsor two major conferences per year (wastewater treatment and collection systems), along with several two- and three-day seminars and many one-day classes.

Nutrient removal was added to the roster in 2009, with an accompanying manual. Members of the unit also provide hands-on assistance and troubleshooting to wastewater treatment plants throughout the state. Together, the unit’s members have hundreds of years of experience in wastewater operation, training and certification.

A defining feature of the unit is its close relationship with the professional associations in the wastewater field, notably the Central States Water Environment Association and the Minnesota Wastewater Operators Association. Training units and association members support each other in handling committee work and putting together training programs and conferences.

These groups also work together to produce an annual training calendar that serves the needs of more than 2,000 wastewater and collection system professionals.

Gene Erickson, an MPCA engineer who supports the training program, and Steve Duerre, an MPCA pollution control specialist and trainer, talked about the program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Is the MPCA training program homegrown, or does it rely on outside resources such as the Sacramento program?

Erickson: We have actually developed our own training programs and manuals for wastewater treatment technology, stabilization ponds, land application of biosolids, nutrient removal, and math — both for wastewater and collection systems.

We list the Sacramento books as reference for our certification program, for people who want to know what to study to prepare for their exams. Our course on collection system basics is modeled after the Sacramento State collection system books.

TPO: What would you say makes your training program unique?

Duerre: One thing that’s unique about us is that in addition to wastewater operators, we run certification and training programs for collection system operators, land application of municipal biosolids and industrial byproducts, and industrial spray irrigation.

Erickson: Another unique element is the relationships we’ve built with the operators. We’re becoming familiar with them, and they’re becoming familiar with us. If they have an issue, like why is my activated sludge looking black today, or why is my pond not responding the way it’s supposed to, they’re really comfortable about calling us.

Even though we’re the regulatory agency, they don’t see us so much as the cops. They see us as people they can call and ask questions. That makes a lot of difference.

We’re broken up into regions in Minnesota and we often call on members of our compliance staff to help with training. That way they understand where the operators are coming from, and the operators understand them a little bit.

So when the compliance people come out and do their inspections, the operators feel free to ask them questions and get advice. In our classes we always make it a point to be sure the operators understand what the rules are. That way, when they do get inspected by the compliance staff, it’s not foreign to them.

TPO: How important is continuing education for operators today versus a few years or a couple of decades ago?

Duerre: It’s hugely more important than a few years ago because of the way things keep changing so fast. With all the new requirements, tighter permit limits and new technologies, it seems like every time they turn around they get hit with something new. Continuing education is essential now to enable the operators to keep up.

Our ultimate goal is to have well-run treatment plants — to help current and future wastewater operators run their plants, keep up with the times, and stay in compliance with our regulations.

TPO: Do your training programs combine classroom sessions with actual hands-on practice?

Erickson: The training programs are given in a classroom setting. The important thing is the interaction, where they learn from each other. We stress in each course that while there’s an instructor up in front doing a presentation, there are many instructors sitting down in the room who have a great deal of knowledge and experience.

We stress the importance of sharing that with each other, and they do. We always provide a lunch, and when they sit down at a table, they talk about what they all have in common, and that’s wastewater treatment. The same thing happens at night at the hotel when they get together for dinner.

TPO: How does your training unit interact with the industry associations?

Erickson: Back in the 1970s, we had a supervisor, Bill Sexauer, who we call the godfather of training. He actually started this unit, and he had a unique vision. He was a big advocate of getting us to be members of the operators associations — being a part of their groups and being involved in their committees and their training.

Duerre: We work primarily with the Minnesota Wastewater Operators Association. I’m on several of their committees, and Gene is, too. We help them plan their programs and help them put on their training.

Erickson: The operators are divided into six sections in the state. They have quarterly section meetings and an annual conference. We help plan their conference, and they help us plan our two conferences. We share resources and speakers back and forth.

TPO: How heavily does your program emphasize collection systems?

Erickson: Collection system certification is mandatory in Minnesota, and we have an excellent training program for collection system operators. We have an annual two-and-a-half-day conference with six concurrent sessions, where we cover sewer cleaning, I&I, pump maintenance — just about everything a collection system operator needs to know. We get in the neighborhood of 400 or 450 operators coming every year.

We also offer a basic collection system conference once a year as an exam refresher and a place to learn about the rules and regulations they have to comply with.

TPO: What is the single biggest training need in the profession today?

Duerre: The single greatest training need is learning how to deal with the current economic conditions — how to do more with less. Budgets are getting cut, and employees aren’t being replaced. Operators need to learn how to become more efficient and manage their assets more effectively.

Ironically, when budgets are cut, training seems to be one of the first items on the chopping block. We are seeing more operators getting their certification renewal hours by going to something that is close by and free or inexpensive, even if the topic is not entirely relevant to their situation.

Erickson: As a profession, we need to convince the cities to continue to allow their operators to come to training. Certification isn’t just something that you need in order to comply. It’s through certification courses that they learn new ideas, learn efficient ways of doing things, and learn about the new rules they’re being faced with.

TPO: What are some of the biggest challenges operators have to keep up with in today’s world?

Duerre: Nutrient regulations are getting stricter and are becoming more and more challenging to meet. That’s especially true in older plants that were not really designed for nutrient removal. Having to retrofit or adapt the plant to meet the new permit requirements can be a big challenge.

TPO: How does your training unit make sure the instruction includes the most up-to-date information and concepts possible?

Erickson: We rely on a lot of people. For our two annual conferences, we have a committee of operators, consultants and vendors who help us put together the programs. We sit down and discuss hot topics — what things we think people should know. We consider feedback from the evaluations we received at the previous conference. It’s amazing what that committee does for us every year. We’re the facilitators. They are the doers. They are up to date. They know what’s going on in the profession.

Duerre: We are also developing very comprehensive Need-to-Know criteria for each certification level. Our staff member Kay Curtin is leading that effort. We will use those criteria for writing our exams and will incorporate them in our training. We have steering teams and sounding boards consisting of operators who assist us in that effort.

TPO: How do wastewater training programs need to adapt in the face of changing times?

Duerre: I think we need to adapt to the computer age. I’m still sold on the old model of face-to-face training, but I can see that we’re becoming more Internet-based, and we’ll need to start looking at vehicles like webinars to keep costs down and reach more people. I still think there’s a big difference between actually being there and sitting in front of a computer. But online is where we seem to be heading.

Erickson: As the baby boomers retire, the younger people coming up are more used to the online world. They may have taken a lot of their college courses online. That’s how they learned. There will be a switch. It’s going to evolve over time.

TPO: What is the role of training in elevating the stature of the profession?

Erickson: Anytime you have people who are certified, that does add credibility to the profession. It took those people a lot of work to become certified — not only passing the exams but the continuing education that goes with it. It elevates the whole profession.

Duerre: Wastewater operators are the ultimate environmentalists. I think certification is a badge of pride for the operators and lends an air of professionalism to the public perception.

TPO: From a trainer’s perspective, what advice would you give to young people interested in clean-water careers?

Duerre: Study everything. Wastewater operators have to wear many hats. They have to be scientists, mathematicians, mechanics, plumbers, electricians. People really get surprised at what you have to know.

If you want to get into this business, be willing to move around at the beginning. Start at a small plant, get some experience, and if you’re willing to stick with it, with all the baby boomers retiring, you can almost write your own ticket as you move up through the ranks. There’s a really good future for young people coming into the profession.


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