A Credential Just for Water and Wastewater Operators Adds Credibility to People and the Profession

Alan Cranford, PO
Alan Cranford, PO

What comes to mind when you see the letters M.D. after someone’s name? Or P.E.? Or CPA?

Those initials mean a lot, right? They signify someone who has studied extensively, passed rigorous examinations and earned the right to be part of an esteemed profession. So, what about the people who operate our clean-water and drinking water systems? Sure, they have earned licenses at various levels, but shouldn’t they have a way to announce their status — some meaningful initials to place after their name?

That’s the motivation behind the Professional Operator (PO) credential. It’s offered by the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP), a part of the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), which among much else develops standardized licensing exams for water professionals. PO is the industry’s first professional designation for operators.

The commission hopes to establish the PO credential nationwide as a uniformly recognized symbol of professional competence and integrity. To earn the PO designation, operators must pass a certification exam and meet specific education and job experience requirements. The credential is offered for water treatment, water distribution, wastewater treatment and wastewater collection operators. Each category includes Class I to Class IV (highest) levels.

The PO designation, created in 2012, is intended to create new opportunities for career advancement and help its holders increase their earning potential. Alan Cranford, PO (Class IV water treatment), manager of the Stones River Water Treatment Plant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, talked about the credential in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is your connection to ABC and the PO credential?

Cranford: I’ve been in the water industry for 37 years in the military and on the civilian side, and I’ve been active in the American Water Works Association for many years. I’ve also served on the Tennessee Water and Wastewater Certification Board for nine years. Our department has been an ABC member since 2011. Through that and personal connections, I was elected to the ABC board of directors. This is my third year, and I am now chairman-elect. I earned my PO credential in 2015. 

TPO: Why did ABC decide to create this credential?

Cranford: The main reason is to have a universal credential reflecting operators’ experience and capability. All the states have different rating schemes for operator certification. The PO was designed to provide standardization, so if I am a Class IV PO in Tennessee or Canada or Mexico or anywhere, everybody knows we’re talking about the same classification, education and background.

TPO: Is the PO credential in addition to state-level licensing and certification?

Cranford: Yes. It was never meant to replace state licenses. However, my philosophy, along with many others, is that we need to standardize certification among the states. That doesn’t mean taking away a state’s authority to regulate, and it doesn’t mean someone telling them what to do. But there should be reciprocity between, for example, Tennessee and Oregon or Michigan and Texas. The only way to achieve that is through some kind of standardization.

TPO: Why is reciprocity so important to operators?

Cranford: A lot of operators want to be more mobile than they can be today. Ten or 15 years ago, it was common for someone to stay for 30 or 40 years in the same facility, but now people want to move around, whether it’s for their families or for better opportunities. It’s extremely difficult under the current state certification process for operators to do that.

TPO: How many operators to date have attained PO credentials?

Cranford: There were 174 as of December 2019. Sixty-one new POs were issued in that year.

TPO: Why would you say the credential has not been taking hold more rapidly?

Cranford: When I talk to people at different conferences, many ask, ‘How is it going to benefit me?’ I tell them it’s for people who really want to go above and beyond what the requirements are. If you just want to clock in, clock out and go home, the PO is probably not for you. It’s for people who want to be the very best they can be and who have dedicated their lives to providing safe drinking water or producing excellent effluent from a water resource recovery facility. 

TPO: How would you compare the difficulty of the PO exams to state licensing exams?

Cranford: It depends on the state. In some cases, the PO exams are harder that the state exams, and sometimes they are equivalent. I wouldn’t say the PO exams are ever less hard. And there are more continuing education requirements for the PO than for state licenses. The continuing education requirement for PO is 24 hours every two years.

TPO: What resources do operators use to study for the exams?

Cranford: The primary sources are the AWWA and Water Environment Federation manuals and the California State University, Sacramento manuals for the water and wastewater sides.

TPO: Do you encourage members of your team to seek the PO credential?

Cranford: Yes. Joe Russell, our assistant water plant manager, is a Class IV PO. Shift supervisor Mike Jones is a Class II PO, and shift supervisor Monte Casto is a Class I PO, as is Kayla Durham, our master plant operator. John Strickland, plant manager at the Murfreesboro Water Resource Recovery Facility, is a Class IV PO.

TPO: Have you benefitted personally from the PO credential?

Cranford: For me the benefit is mostly a matter of making a statement that I’ve gone above and beyond. Other people are also seeing benefits. So far I haven’t heard of anyone getting additional pay, but it helps if you’re applying for a new position somewhere. It’s a credential you can show that other people don’t have and that is recognized by people who are hiring.

TPO: Are you aware of specific instances where a PO credential has given someone an advantage in the hiring process?

Cranford: Yes. A former Murfreesboro team member, Alison McGee, now works for Huntsville Utilities in Alabama, where she is water supply superintendent over four water plants. She earned her Class IV PO before she left here, and it helped her attain her current position.

TPO: Have you seen any states accepting the PO credential in terms of reciprocity?

Cranford: Ohio uses the PO exams for its state certification, so operators can basically get the PO and their state certification at the same time. That’s the only such case I’m aware of.

TPO: What is ABC doing to promote this credential?

Cranford: ABC holds POWER events at the WEFTEC and ACE conferences where they recognize new POs. They hold the events in the exhibit halls. The presidents of WEF and AWWA or their representatives come and give talks.

TPO: What is the significance of the PO code of conduct?

Cranford: It standardizes what is acceptable and ethical in this profession. Failure to follow the code of conduct would lead to losing your credential. There are 10 statements you must agree to. The code of conduct makes sure you understand that you’re responsible for acting honestly, competently and with integrity at all times to ensure the protection of public health and the environment. 

TPO: Do people who earn the credential regularly use the PO initials after their name in their professional communications?

Cranford: Almost everyone does. There’s also a pin you receive based on the level of PO you have. It’s a water drop with blue jewels to signify the class level you have attained.

TPO: What would you say to an operator who asked whether it would be worthwhile to earn the PO credential?

Cranford: I would ask: ‘Are you willing to go above and beyond? Are you willing to devote the extra time that’s required not only to study for the credential, but to maintain it?’ The people who have the PO are going to be the stars of the industry. If I had a choice between someone with a PO or not, I’m going to select the PO because I know that person is dedicated to being the best.


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