From Alaska to Maine: The Road to Expert Trainer Starts With a ‘Fall’

From Alaska to Maine: The Road to Expert Trainer Starts With a ‘Fall’
A Certified Environmental Instructor (CET), Mike Harrington runs his own business providing water, wastewater and industrial wastewater treatment training across the country, working for USABlueBook, colleges, manufacturers and regulatory agencies. (Photos courtesy of Mike Harrington)

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Mike Harrington has seen a lot in his 18 years developing and providing certification training for wastewater treatment and water system plant operators. And it’s a good thing he’s done a lot himself over the course of his entire career, because it gives him insights into the challenges many of his students face. 

Like many others in the field, he admits to falling into the profession instead of choosing it as a career path. From his initial operational roles in water and wastewater plants, he eventually went to work marketing the systems and technologies used by these plants for their manufacturers. He later moved from marketing into product training, which eventually led to his current career. 

A Certified Environmental Trainer (CET), Harrington today runs his own business, C.M. Harrington, providing water and wastewater treatment training across the country, working for USABlueBook, colleges, manufacturers and regulatory agencies. It’s a role he enjoys despite the fact it keeps him on the road from Maine to Alaska more days a year than he is back in his Maryland home office. 

Not always a chosen profession 

When asked about the challenges of operator certification today, Harrington doesn’t hesitate to share what he feels is one of the biggest challenges for trainers today.

“Just like me, a lot of the superintendents and operators attending my courses never chose this occupation,” he explains. “They may have had another role in municipal government, or been laid off another job and applied for an opening in the water or wastewater plant. Some have high school degrees, some two- and four-year college degrees. I’ve had former chefs, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and assembly line workers attend my classes to get licensed.” 

Over the course of 150 to 200 classes a year, Harrington will stand in front of upwards of 4,000 operators. Some have never stepped inside their plant’s lab. Others walk into the classroom right after eight hours on third-shift. “Some have 30 years of experience and are due for recertification, while others were put in the job only recently and given a couple of years — or even only a couple months — to get certified,” says Harrington. 

“Some are not familiar with the terminology or have ever heard about some of the technologies we’re talking about. It’s definitely a challenge to provide an environment of learning that takes into account all these different backgrounds and educations but still enables everyone to legitimately earn the hours for certification or recertification they need.” 

Encouraging learning 

One of the techniques Harrington relies on in the more than a dozen different workshops he provides through USABlueBook is to keep the training interactive. From icebreakers such as asking attendees to name the “Top 10 Reasons To Be A Water Treatment Operator” to giving them a chance to check samples of wastewater under a microscope, he says the key is to keep momentum and employ diversions. “A workshop that’s all PowerPoint slides will put anyone to sleep,” Harrington says. 

Demonstrations, hands-on activities, even small prizes for correct answers, help to keep everyone engaged and even make learning fun. “Believe it or not, it can be intimidating for anyone with only a high school background when they find out that they may have to do math as part of their certification training,” he says. 

One of the interactive techniques Harrington uses is to have attendees examine actual samples of wastewater under a microscope. “Although they work in treatment plants, they don’t often get a chance to see what goes on in other parts of the plant — especially the laboratory,” he says. The exercise isn’t the easiest to do in a remote classroom, he admits, but knows better learning occurs with any hands-on activity. 

Harrington also works hard to deliver a strong learning experience by encouraging attendees to ask questions and to speak up if they don’t agree with something presented in his workshops. 

Trends towards improved training

When asked to describe trends he’s seeing in certification requirements, Harrington says that while states are becoming more active at improving training programs, they’re still struggling somewhat to improve training requirements. Consequently, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. 

“One of the biggest problems we’re facing in our industry is that the EPA created a set of ‘primacy’ rules for the states to follow,” he says. “But each state gets to set their own certification and training requirements within the boundaries as established by EPA, which leads to considerable training and certification diversity from one state to another.” 

When Harrington schedules a training program, the first order of business is to submit an outline and objectives for the class to the regulatory agency in order to get it approved for Continuing Education Unit (CEU) hours. “It’s unfortunate that I have to do this over and over, modifying the curriculum as necessary because there is no one set of consistent standards for training across all states,” he explains. “Training reciprocity across neighboring states exists, but it’s fairly infrequent.” 

Despite these issues, those in the industry are still doing all they can to fill some of the gaps that a lack of national guidelines creates. “Colleges and universities across the country are doing their best to assess the needs in their areas and offer training programs that aren’t being offered in their states.” 

Uniformity a priority 

When asked where he feels improvements and changes need to occur, Harrington points to the need for a uniform operator certification classification and designation system accepted by all state primacy agents. Next on his list is recertification. 

“The industry clearly lacks and needs uniform recertification requirements, especially a definition of the number of required classroom training hours needed for recertification for each class of license,” he says. This includes uniform criteria for courses, too — from descriptions and objectives to outlines, timelines and format. 

“I’d like to see every training course integrate more hands-on learning as well as follow clearly defined, minimum requirements for measuring training effectiveness against course objectives,” he continues. “The most effective way for this to happen is for all training entities to administer the same quizzes and tests.” 

More training support 

Another trend he sees is municipalities fighting budget deficits by cutting back on their support of staff training. Often operators have to take a vacation day to attend recertification or relicensing training. They also may have to cover the cost of the training out of their own pockets with a typical one-day workshop running from $90 to as much as $150 or $200. 

“If you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of building a state-of-the-art treatment plant,” he points out, “why wouldn’t you support your operators in what is critical training for these important jobs? 

“We’re a very diverse country and accepting of diversity in so many ways,” Harrington admits. “But when it comes to having different state requirements for water and wastewater treatment plants, it’s not necessarily the best thing for the communities these plants serve. 

“We can’t move quickly enough to develop uniform national standards.” 


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