Looking to Carry Your License to Other States? WEF Is Working to Pave the Way

The Water Environment Federation is working toward the day when certification reciprocity would remove barriers that limit options for operators and utilities.

It’s no secret that waves of operators are retiring and that water and wastewater utilities need replacements. It’s also no secret that operators wish they weren’t constrained in their mobility by state-by-state licensing and certification.

Reciprocity in licensing would help both sides. Ideally, a license earned in one state would be recognized in the other 49. The reality is, to say the least, a bit more complicated. Different states have their own sets of criteria, their own programs, their own exams. States may differ greatly in what skills, for example, a Class 1 (or Grade I) operator needs to have.

Still, that’s no reason to give up on reciprocity, proponents say. Now the Water Environment Federation, through its Operator Advisory Panel, has started the slow, meticulous process of working to increase reciprocity. The same panel is also working on other initiatives to advance operators’ training, job opportunities, and prestige.

One member of the panel is Joan Hawley, P.E., principal of Superior Engineering in Muskego, Wisconsin. Hawley has a master’s degree in civil engineering and a Wisconsin Grade 4 wastewater operator license; she also holds a Professional Operator credential in collections from the Association of Boards of Certification, or ABC. Hawley is a WEF trustee and past chair of the WEF Collections Committee. She talked about reciprocity and the Operator Advisory Panel’s other activities in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is the basic structure and role of the Operator Advisory Panel?

Hawley: The panel is almost a think tank, and it has specific positions. It is led by Mike Kyle, executive director of the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Area Sewer Authority. I serve on it as a WEF board member. The vice chair of the board’s Plant Operations and Maintenance Committee and the vice chair of the Operations Challenge are members. We also handpicked experts from across the United States as well as one from Canada. Our goal is to make sure WEF is doing its best to serve operators.

TPO: What are the main priorities of the panel?

Hawley: Reciprocity is a big one. Another is workforce development, which includes training programs, but also communication and outreach — promoting our profession through public information and toolkits for schools and targeting veterans and underrepresented groups.

TPO: Why is reciprocity so important for operators?

Hawley: Operators are a lot more mobile nowadays. Many operators who are retiring now have been in their positions for 30 or 40 years. That used to be the norm, but now people are moving around. They’re changing jobs more. They want to be able to go from state to state and take their license with them. They say, “I worked hard. I studied. Why do I need to take the exams over and over?” Or people from rural areas move away, earn their credentials in another state, and then want to come back to their hometown.

TPO: How can reciprocity benefit utility management?

Hawley: I’ve talked to utility managers who say they’re desperate for key operators and staff. Their operators are retiring. Prospective replacements are moving into the area, but getting them the credentials they need is really critical. Another issue that is rumbling about is that the person in charge at a facility — the person who signs on the permit — potentially can face liability in a manner similar to a Professional Engineer, or P.E., in charge who has to stamp the drawings. It’s really important for utility managers to raise the level of professionalism to be able to pull in qualified people from different areas.

TPO: Why are some states reluctant to accept other states’ licenses?

Hawley: For one thing, regulatory agencies each have their own licensing entities. They developed the programs, and they take pride in them. Why would they want to take somebody else’s? Also, in the old days, maybe the quality of some states’ testing requirements weren’t very good. States look at each other suspiciously; people bring things up that happened 30 years ago, not realizing that times have changed. In addition, operator classifications are kind of a hodgepodge. One state will have Grades 1 through 4. Another has Class A through D. Some states have Class 1 to 5. Sometimes 4 or 5 is the highest, and sometimes 1 is the highest.

TPO: What general approach is WEF taking toward developing reciprocity?

Hawley: We are partnering with ABC, which was created by WEF and the American Water Works Association in 1972 as a separate entity to provide operator certification. ABC has been a game-changer in how they put their programs together. They have gone through and defined Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4 and the hours of experience, hours of classes, and job skills required for each one. They’ve standardized all that. A lot of states use part of ABC. Some states already use all the ABC tests. We’re not promoting that everyone has to use ABC, but we’d like people to consider using it or consider reciprocity to be the norm.

TPO: Are there examples of full reciprocity in water-related professions?

Hawley: I use the example of the P.E. credential. As a P.E. in Wisconsin, I can essentially fill out a form and pay a fee and I’m a P.E. in another state. In Canada, the English-speaking provinces use ABC for all their testing, and operators can easily go from province to province. The French-speaking province of Quebec works closely with the other provinces to provide reciprocity.

TPO: How much reciprocity already exists?

Hawley: It’s kind of confusing. Each state has its own process. Some states automatically recognize operators from certain other states. Some use ABC but then they tack on additional requirements, or they might revise some of the ABC tests. We’re trying to get away from that so the ABC test is standardized.

TPO: Do you envision reciprocity helping to drive up salaries for operators?

Hawley: I would hope that it would help bring them up to a level of pay commensurate with their competency. I see some cases where the pay is probably acceptable, but in some cases, it’s not commensurate with their skill set. The skill sets that are needed today, even at the basic level, are a lot more extensive than many people know.

TPO: What needs to be done to encourage more reciprocity among states?

Hawley: It’s going to take a lot of one-on-one with the state agencies, getting people to recognize that this is a significant problem and they need to be part of the solution. It also takes bringing ABC to the table to say, “Here’s our program. Here’s what we’ve changed. Here’s our offering.” As state funding is cut and jobs are cut, maybe some states will see that adopting ABC isn’t a bad idea because they don’t have the manpower to run their own programs anymore.

TPO: How quickly do you envision full reciprocity becoming a reality?

Hawley: I would love to see every state turn around in the next year and say, “We’re on board with this,” but we have to face all the challenges I’ve mentioned. For some states, it might be a matter of utility managers insisting on reciprocity because otherwise they’re not able to get the quality of people they need.

TPO: Turning to another priority, what is driving the emphasis on workforce development?

Hawley: At WEF, we deal with a lot of utility executives who see a grinding need for sophisticated operators. Our treatment plants for some 50 years were activated sludge — the same philosophy and the same technology. Now with nutrient recovery, energy efficiency, sophisticated instrumentation, and automation, we need a whole different kind of operator. Even small plants are increasingly sophisticated. We need top-notch operators out there.

TPO: What are a couple of examples of what WEF is doing for training?

Hawley: We’ve created an On-Demand Wastewater Library — an OWWL. It’s free for WEF members and includes short items, five to seven pages — information in bite-size segments. Operators want quick segments or videos that show them how to do things. We’re also creating training manuals more focused on operators. For example, we’re taking the WEF Manual of Practice that was written for design engineers and putting it in a format where it’s going to be easy for operators to understand. That manual will be available in spring 2018. 

TPO: What needs to be done with public outreach and education as it relates to the stature of operators?

Hawley: We need to do a better job at promoting our profession. We’re not patting ourselves on the back and saying, “Look at all this great work we’re doing.” You can’t outsource our water and wastewater jobs. We have to be at the plant and be around the collections system. We do what is probably one of the most important jobs — keeping our water clean.


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