Nebraska Operators Create Partnership To Deliver Online Training

Nebraska operators reach halfway across the country for a partnership to deliver high-quality online training that helps participants pass licensing exams.
Nebraska Operators Create Partnership To Deliver Online Training
Ryan Hurst

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Licensing exams can be tough, especially at the upper levels. Passing them takes study, ideally in the form of a training course of some kind.

But in a big rural state, like Nebraska, it’s hard for operators to travel to a central classroom site for sessions of a course lasting multiple weeks. So what’s a state operator association to do? Well, the Nebraska Water Environment Association (NWEA) looked to the online world.

Specifically, the group looked to Florida Gateway College, which offers online water and wastewater courses that function as exam preparation while also providing college course credits. Through an agreement with Florida Gateway, the NWEA gives its members access to courses that can help them boost their chances of exam success.

The program augments existing training programs offered by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the NWEA’s own training classes. Ryan Hurst, facilities maintenance supervisor with the City of Seward Water & Wastewater Department, talked about the online program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What’s your history in the water professions and with certifications and exams?

Hurst: I got my start in the industry when I joined the City of Seward eight years ago. Like a lot of young operators — I was 21 — I didn’t have a college degree, although I had gone to a community college for general studies. As I acclimated to the industry, I discovered, “Wow, there is a lot to learn here.” Part of our job as operators is to earn those certifications.

At that time, the DEQ had a five-day training course. I took it and got my Class II wastewater operator certification. I scored really high on the exam, and so that same year, feeling cocky, I decided to try and get my Class IV — you can skip steps in Nebraska on the wastewater side. I just bombed the test. I wasn’t prepared for it at all. A couple of years later I decided to commit to this career. NWEA had a three-day test preparation course. I took that and then took the Class IV exam again. I missed it by 5 percent. It’s a very hard test.

TPO: Did you find that other operators had experiences similar to yours?

Hurst: When I attended that second class, I started to hear a common thread. All the operators of different ages were saying the same things. For one, they said the test was too hard. And for two, they said there just wasn’t enough training for the Class IV test.

I later took advantage of the Sacramento State test prep materials. I took the advanced wastewater treatment course and I did it all on my own. I must have made up more than 1,000 flash cards that I memorized. It almost became an obsession — I had to pass that test. I put a lot of effort into studying, and in July 2013 I passed and got my Class IV certification. I also have a Grade II water operator license.

TPO: What did you do with the information you had gathered about the exam and the shortage of effective training for it?

Hurst: I had been flirting with what we could do in Nebraska to help operators pass the upper-level tests, and even the lower-level tests. I did some research and looked into what other states were doing. I thought of what we could do to provide longer-term training instead of just the three-day or five-day courses — what if we spread it out over 15 weeks? Because it’s so much to learn. In three days, if you had to learn it all, there’s no way you could do it.

In calling around, I found some courses in Florida where operators actually have to take test preparation courses before taking the exams. There were in-classroom courses, but I realized that would not work in Nebraska. There’s no way you could get operators from places like Sidney, Lincoln and Alliance together for a long-term class. They’re all eight hours apart. They couldn’t make it to a class once a week.

TPO: After coming to that realization, where did you look next?

Hurst: I found Florida Gateway College in Lake City. They have what they call a Water2Go operator training program. It’s a 15-week online certification training program and a five-credit college course. You can apply the credit toward an associate degree. Operators can log in and find reading assignments, practice tests and discussion forums where they can interact with operators from throughout the country. The course is taught by a professor, and if you have questions, if you don’t understand something, you can email or call him.

TPO: Once you found this resource was available, how did you proceed?

Hurst: At first I thought, “We’re going to bring this to Nebraska.” But then I came to the realization that since Florida Gateway already had the infrastructure and the teachers, and it was an online course, it didn’t matter where we delivered it from. I saw that it would be cheaper and better to offer the course through a partnership between the NWEA and the college.

At the 2013 NWEA fall conference, I brought the idea up to Keith Kontor, who is wastewater superintendent in Fremont, and Todd Boling, who is wastewater superintendent in Norfolk. They were leaders on the NWEA Training Committee. I organized teleconferences with them and the staff at Florida Gateway, most notably Dr. David Shoup, who at the time was the water resources program director, but has since retired. On Jan. 9, 2014, we signed a memorandum of understanding between Florida Gateway and the NWEA that formally spelled out what our partnership would look like.

TPO: Since the college has all the training infrastructure, what is the NWEA’s role in the partnership?

Hurst: We decided that what we would do from on our side is promote the program within the state. I’ve done two presentations about it at operator conferences. We’ve also put out announcements in some flyers and some newsletter articles.

TPO: How does this new online program fit in with the training previously available?

Hurst: We still offer the three-day NWEA test preparation course, but now when operators want to get the in-depth training they need for their upper-level certifications or even for the lower levels, we send them to Florida Gateway and the online training. We’ve only had a few sign up for it so far, but we hope that over the years as we keep offering it, we’ll really boost our training quality and improve our exam pass percentage.

TPO: Historically, what kind of success rate have you seen on the Class IV exam?

Hurst: On the Class IV operator certification, it has been about a 25 percent pass rate. We’re hoping to dramatically improve that through the online program and the existing offerings. Florida Gateway students have a pass rate of about 80 percent on average and about 70 percent on the highest level Florida certification exam.

TPO: How does the new offering differ in kind from the homegrown Nebraska programs?

Hurst: It’s far more in depth, and it’s online. There is no other online training in Nebraska. Also, instead of being just a three-day preparatory course, it’s actually training from the basics to advanced. It’s also an opportunity to discuss with other operators. And you take practice tests that really help prepare you for the exams.

TPO: How do you deal with state-specific differences in requirements?

Hurst: Both Florida and Nebraska use the Association of Boards of Certification testing program. So while there are some differences because there are items specific to each state, the vast majority of the training and information is applicable to both.

TPO: Have you encountered any specific resistance to the online training?

Hurst: It’s a significant time commitment. Operators need to devote about six hours a week for 15 weeks to the course. There are still some communities that need to embrace giving their operators the time they need for adequate training.

TPO: When operators sign up for the course and log on, what do they experience?

Hurst: They can’t just start at any time — it runs based on semesters, and there are specific start and end dates. Other than that, they can do the work completely on their own time. They log into a portal for the discussion forums, assignments and assessments. All your information is available to click on and navigate. There are videos for watching and learning. The professors don’t lecture. They organize the course, make themselves available for email and phone consultation, and review and comment on the discussion forums. The instructor on the wastewater side is Sheldon Primus, and on the water side it’s Dr. John Rowe.

TPO: What is the cost of this training?

Hurst: For the 15 weeks, the cost is $585, and that includes a $150 manual. That’s very competitive for a course led by a professor and with opportunities to interact with other operators.

TPO: How does this course feed into actual degree programs?

Hurst: The credits count toward the college’s online associate degree in environmental science, which I recently completed. Beginning in January, Florida Gateway will also offer a bachelor’s degree in applied science in water resource management, completely online. So operators could start out with the online training course program just to help them get their certifications, but then turn it into part of attaining a college degree.

I hope we can continue to find ways to innovate and help operators get the training they need, especially when so many operators will be retiring in the next few years. There’s a lot of knowledge needed in this profession, and we can’t afford to overlook that.   


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