Where Will We Go With Training?

A certified trainer offers perspectives on training budgets, online versus classroom training, licensing reciprocity, standardized basic exams, and other relevant topics.
Where Will We Go With Training?
DW/WW only: Drinking Water and Wastewater Operator Licenses only DS only: Water Distribution System Operator Licenses only

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Editor’s Note: TPO’s “Lab Detective” columnist was invited to speak at the 2012 WEFTEC Conference in New Orleans about operator training and training challenges as one of a group of speakers on this subject. This perspective article summarizes that half-hour discussion in which he took part with his peers.

Over the past several years, perhaps due to the nation’s financial and fiscal crisis, I have seen a marked decrease in students, trainees and operators at our training events at the University of Florida’s TREEO Center.

Granted, we are not the least expensive training vendor in Florida, but even our most loyal customers had slowed their attendance. When asked, plant managers, superintendents and operators usually cited one of these reasons:

  • We only have money budgeted to cover the CEU training required for our operators. If an operator already had enough CEUs, the budget was used for others who did not.
  • We have training money but cannot travel to your location. We can now only provide online training where the operators incur no travel expenses.
  • We have no training money OR travel money; the operators are on their own to get the CEUs required to renew their licenses.
  • We have training money, but no travel budget. We will pay the course fee; the operators must endure the travel expenses.
  • In some instances, this situation has caused operators to attend classes where they have taken time off to do so and used their own vehicles and savings.

More with less?

With less staff, there is less available time for operators to attend classes. Many of our local operators can only attend evening or weekends classes. At many utilities, positions are not being filled after some operators retire. This is causing real concern among the trainers and human resource departments: Who will we get to fill these positions?

Over the last several years, I have seen an increase in people willing to join the water and wastewater industry as a second career. Some are leaving other industries to join ours due to the economy, rising fuel costs, and downsizing. I get many people from the real estate workforce, the trucking industry, and the military asking how to get jobs in the water-wastewater field.

It’s wonderful that we have folks willing and able to join the field, but how long will they be working in this job? How do we get young folks right out of high school, who do not long for a college education, to become water and wastewater operators?

In the accompanying table provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Operator Certification Program, you can see the evidence. More than 63 percent of the drinking water and wastewater operators in Florida are between the ages of 41 and 60, and fewer than 5 percent under the age of 30.

Technically advanced plants

Keeping up with the times couldn’t be more important than right now. Gone are the good old days of simple-to-control treatment units, where we just ran DO tests, settleometers, chlorine residual and pH tests. With the U.S. EPA facing litigation from environmental groups demanding stricter effluent discharge limits, our jobs have become more intense and advanced.

Facilities having to meet very low nitrogen and phosphorus limits require operators with more knowledge of the biological processes and training on how to make process control adjustments and run nutrient analysis. Today’s treatment plants have nicknames like: MBR, MBBR, SBR, Anammox process, the Sharon process, the Bardenpho process, Bio-Denipho and Bio-Denitro.

Many plants are computer-controlled, with relays, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and automated valves. Troubleshooting these devices requires knowledge of electronics, instrumentation and 4-20 mA signals. If a valve opens at the incorrect time, or does not shut properly or fully, the whole treatment process can suffer, and so will effluent quality.

Online vs. classroom

Today, online training opportunities exist like never before. Operators can take online courses to obtain their required CEUs, get training on almost any topic imaginable, and even take courses required to sit for state exams. In very unofficial studies in my classes at the TREEO Center, I ask participants about the online training they have taken and their thoughts on the material.

Just about 9 out of 10 people say that they prefer classroom teaching. Most of them cite the inability to feel a part of the training during online sessions, the monotony of sitting at a computer for hours, and the inability to do hands-on activities. However some prefer the online method due to convenience, the absence of travel, the ability to start and stop the training at will, and the cost savings. I find it interesting that the folks who prefer online training are younger (generally under 30). My concerns about online training, including webinars, are:

  • Who is validating the course material?
  • Who wrote the course material: trainer or vendor/manufacturer?
  • Is the operator really the person at the computer logging the time for the class and CEUs?
  • How do we confirm that the training, once completed, is really comprehended?

Distracted operators

As a trainer, I see today’s operators doing much more with less time and sometimes less money. They carry cellphones, smartphones, two-way radios, laptops and various other devices. Many times, they need these devices to stay in communication with the high-tech treatment plants they operate. During training sessions, trainers must compete for the attention of distracted operators who can quickly look up any topic on a smartphone during the class.

Operators receive text messages, emails and phone calls during class, distracting them and those around them from the material being presented. I remind many students to turn off their phones, but this becomes a problem if they need to use the smartphone as a calculator. I always keep generic calculators close by for such occasions!

Great questions!

At the end of my speaking time during WEFTEC, I asked for questions from the audience. I was pleased to get several great ones. One question was: “How can we get more young people into this field?” My reply: We need to get out there and get our industry noticed! We are terrible at marketing ourselves and what we do.

Wastewater and drinking water operators seem to be behind-the-scenes people, doing our jobs every day, often unnoticed. We need to reach out to vocational-technical school representatives and high school guidance counselors, attend local job fairs at schools, go to malls and workforce centers. TPO magazine has had many articles about people who are doing all of this with their local schools and community colleges. We need to let people know that we are in a highly technical field that the human race cannot live without.

Another good question was about “reciprocity in licensing between the states, to allow more flow between the states operators.” My reply: I believe it’s time we all come together and form a nationwide licensing board for water and wastewater operators. So many of our states require course work to sit for an exam, and the most common courses used are the tried-and-true California State University Sacramento Office of Water Program’s courses on Operation of Wastewater Treatment Facilities (Vols. 1 and 2) and the Advanced Waste Treatment course.

Since this material is the main training source, why can’t we make that our reference manual for the exams, pull questions from them, and build a set of exams that would be uniform around the country?

The Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) licensing program has a table that shows reciprocity between their licensing and 36 states, territories and tribal agencies. It can be found at www.abccert.org/abc_certification_program/exam_equivalancy.asp.

My thought on this issue is: Why don’t we have a uniform base test administered in every state, covering the basic topics of treatment plant operation: safety, maintenance, general chemistry and biological theory, disinfection, basic math and EPA regulations?

On passing that basic exam, trainees could take specialized exams for the types of treatment in which they wanted endorsement: activated sludge, trickling filters, nutrient removal and others. The same could apply in the drinking water industry. An operator who wanted to move to Montana or California or Florida could then take a specialized exam covering treatment techniques used in that state or locale. I believe this would make us more valuable and marketable as operators and increase our pride and professionalism.

I hope this perspective generates some interest and discussion. Let me know if you find yourself saying, “Yes, that’s what is happening to my utility, or in my workplace, or during my training sessions.”

About the author

Ron Trygar is senior training specialist in water and wastewater at the University of Florida TREEO Center and a certified environmental trainer (CET). He can be reached at rtrygar@treeo.ufl.edu.


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