Respect for the Profession

Trainer sees tougher testing and certification as way for operators to build reputations
Respect for the Profession
Brett Ward, a utility operations consultant in Tennessee, says water and wastewater treatment services provided by large and small municipalities are largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind because of the good job utilities have done of sending high-quality water into every tap and clean water back to every stream.

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Reputation building is just one of the topics on Brett Ward’s mind. As a utility operations consultant in Tennessee, he knows that water and wastewater treatment services provided by large and small municipalities are largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind because of the good job utilities have done of sending high-quality water into every tap and clean water back to every stream. 

Drinking water and wastewater operators are the nation’s primary public health workers who have helped prevent outbreaks of infectious disease and contributed to longer lives, yet they rarely get credit for these accomplishments. This is one reason why Ward suggests the industry put more effort into educating their communities and even their own managers about what they do and the importance of these services. And that starts with taking licensing more seriously. 

Ward recently spoke with Treatment Plant Operator to discuss the importance of operator certification, pointing to ever-improving water and sewer utilities, and drainage systems, as responsible for many of the gains in life expectancy throughout the 20th century. 

TPO: How did you get into the water industry?

Ward: There are very few people who started out their careers thinking they’d go into the water treatment or sewer business – and I’m one of them. My background is agriculture; I have an agriculture degree from the University of Tennessee and spent 15 years farming. 

After a couple years in an agriculture-related job, an acquaintance who knew I was interested in making a career change mentioned that our local water plant had lost an operator. Long story short, I went to work for that local utility board in the sewer plant and found a home in the sewer business. After a number of years there, I moved on to my current position here at the University of Tennessee. Wastewater business is important work, quite challenging and there are some really great people working in the industry. 

TPO: Explain your current role in the clean-water industry.

Ward: I’m officially a utility operations consultant, or what’s often described as an operator’s consultant. Unlike a consulting engineer who does plant design, I work directly with plant operators. I have a Grade 4 Tennessee Water Plant and Wastewater Plant license, a Grade 2 Collection license and a Level 2 Pretreatment Certification from the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association. 

The agency I work through at the university is the Municipal Technical Advisory Service. We’re a rather unique organization. We have a staff of 35 field consultants, the biggest group being the municipal management consultants who work with elected officials and city managers. These professionals tend to be former city managers or mayors with master’s degrees in Public Administration. 

The rest of our staff members have specialties in municipal law, accounting, finance and utility rate studies, municipal ordinance codification, and police and fire department operations. We also have two professional engineers, two human resource consultants, and one water and one wastewater specialist. That’s our agency – similar to the Agricultural Extension Service, but we work with municipalities. 

I primarily consult with treatment plant operators in smaller cities across the state, but have done work for big cities, too. I spend about half my time on industrial pretreatment assistance and provide compliance assistance, biosolids land application and laboratory training. 

TPO: What do you like most about your job?

Ward: The fun part of my job — and the most valuable part — is compliance assistance. I provide a few continuing education operator classes, working with our state training center and sometimes do one-on-one test preparation training for certification exams. 

TPO: What do you find operators need the most help with when preparing for certification?

Ward: Usually it’s math. Many operators new to this industry have been out of school for several years, and their math skills are rusty. Perhaps the most difficult part of preparation is that although there are two main agencies providing certification training, those preparing for the tests must study on their own. Most workers have families and responsibilities that are difficult to put aside. I have had several operators say when they finally put life on hold for a while and studied diligently, they passed their exams. 

About three years ago, the Tennessee Certification Board started using ABC’s system, which caused significant controversy. For years Tennessee had maintained its own database of certification test questions. Because there was a budget crisis about the time those needed updating, the board chose to go with the ABC program. The somewhat tougher ABC test definitely has resulted in people needing to work harder to pass. 

TPO: Who provides drinking water and wastewater treatment training in Tennessee?

Ward: The bulk of our operator training is performed by the state of Tennessee at the Fleming Training Center in Murfreesboro. Another major trainer is the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts. In other states, these would be known as the Rural Water folks. So these two agencies do the bulk of the training but online training is gaining popularity and there is some demand for operator training that provides college credit. 

TPO: What type of training do you personally provide?

Ward: I have some small groups across the state for which I provide regular continuing education. One of the hot topics in continuing education this year is the new laboratory quality assurance requirements from the EPA known as the Method Update Rule, or what I like to call the ‘12 steps of laboratory quality assurance.’ 

It was a change that took vague wastewater permit requirements and made them a bit more understandable. It’s yet one more area where a good understanding of math is required because of the statistical data analysis required, and many operators struggle with this. Another reason is that lab quality assurance has multiple complex and non-intuitive names for the same types of quality assurance activities. 

Admittedly, our operators often feel that the people putting these regulations together are trying to confuse those who have to learn them. I had a request just this week from a lab analyst asking for a hands-on lab quality assurance class. “You can give me handouts or show me PowerPoints, but I need to actually do it in order to understand what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis.” 

TPO: Do you think national guidelines for operators are important?

Ward: Because we use ABC here in Tennessee for our certification testing, we have the advantage of their broad perspective. And because the ABC testing appears to be tougher than when we were maintaining our own database of testing questions, I feel operators are studying harder, preparing better and ultimately will be better operators for having passed the ABC test. 

I wouldn’t oppose national guidelines, but mandated national standards would create a huge amount of controversy and divert a lot of energy fighting that change which could go toward doing a better job training and certifying operators. 

TPO: What do you see as the biggest challenges operators face today?

Ward: In addition to higher skill levels in things such as nutrient removal, I see operators needing more training in computers, PLCs and electronics, or what I call “industrial maintenance” training. In larger plants there will be people who specialize in these, but the majority of plants in our state are smaller plants. The average small town operator pretty much has to do everything, but it’s extraordinarily valuable when they do have all those skills. 

Secondly, I don’t think licensed operators are as valued as they should be, and the services they provide are not valued by citizens or city leaders as much as they should be. Policymakers and elected officials generally acknowledge the importance of the job operators are doing, but that acknowledgement often does not result in financial support. 

Water and wastewater utilities simply are not “sexy” enough to compete against the pressure to keep taxes and rates low, especially if there have been years of tight budgets. Elections are not won on issues like reducing inflow and infiltration or lowering water loss. In many municipalities the emphasis is on not burdening citizens with higher taxes, which is important, but there still is an important public health job to get done. Even when management wants to hire more educated, better qualified and higher licensed individuals, they often don’t have the budget to do so. 

Many operators, particularly in small towns, work directly for elected officials. And that can be challenging because they often have to teach each new elected official the importance of what they’re doing, the importance of having qualified people doing it, the challenge of meeting regulations and the overall benefits of these services. 

So understandably, operators are frustrated when they have equipment or supply needs that don’t make it into the budget. We have to be able to make our case for why it’s important, both verbally and in writing. It’s all about selling our services and our own expertise. It means continuously reporting upward about the compliance, maintenance and personnel status of your facility, even if you think no one values it. 

We have to value our own profession first. And, we have to take licensing and certification seriously because they matter. No one else is going to help us build our own reputation. 


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