Not Your Grandfather's Treatment Plant Operation

Regional training director sees opportunities to improve training, help operators advance, attract more to the field
Not Your Grandfather's Treatment Plant Operation
Jon Jewett, a specialist in performance management and a long-time instructor in NEIWPCC classes, leads a session for Massachusetts operators enrolled in a year-long management training program, co-sponsored by NEIWPCC.

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With an increasing number of wastewater treatment operators and other key staff members retiring or moving on from the industry, Tom Groves argues that ongoing training is vital to ensure treatment plants are being properly operated and in compliance. 

As director of wastewater and onsite programs for the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, Groves oversees the development and delivery of training programs for thousands of wastewater treatment facility operators across the seven states. 

Based in Lowell, Mass., NEIWPCC assists in meeting the water-related needs of its member states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — that are in such close proximity that standards governing waterways that flow from one state to another are of interest to them all. The agency is recognized for its wastewater operator training programs.

“A lot of money is invested in wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, and we have to have competent operators running these facilities,” Groves says. 

After 24 years on the job, he still speaks enthusiastically about the challenges of developing training programs and opportunities to encourage more to consider careers in wastewater treatment. Groves offered insights about training program development in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator

TPO: What was the initial goal of NEIWPCC? How has it changed?

Groves: Our initial charge was to set and review water-quality standards for interstate waters. But we later became more involved with developing and administering guidelines for things such as the growing number of wastewater treatment facilities. Eventually, that led to training programs for the wastewater operators who run these facilities. 

As a quasi-governmental agency, our goals are coordination and facilitation of regional initiatives. We receive federal funds to help provide training, including bringing training programs into the farther reaches of some member states so operators there don’t have to travel long distances to regional training centers. 

We used to supplement the training needs of member states’ training centers but have increasingly taken on more responsibility for developing and delivering training programs as those training centers have been eliminated. We also help regulatory agencies and consulting engineers with design guidelines for wastewater treatment facilities. We have a well-known document – TR-16 – with design guidelines for wastewater treatment facilities. We’ve also created manuals for collections systems, staffing and biosolids. 

We’re currently working on an update and review of our TR-16 design guidelines to address anticipated sea level rise and the increasing number of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms, which are happening with far more frequency and intensity than was the case when most facilities were originally designed and built. 

TPO: Has NEIWPCC taken over all training and certification programs for member states?

Groves: No, not at all. We operate the programs for some states, and our success has inspired interest among other states in taking advantage of our capabilities. Clearly, there are economic benefits to providing training across a wider audience. A lot of states have had to cut their budgets for training and certification programs. Even more importantly, we see that more and more of the people running wastewater treatment facilities today are either retiring or moving on. And some positions are not being replaced. 

A lot of money is invested in wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, and we have to have competent operators running these facilities. So, ongoing training is a key component in our commitment to our member states and to ensuring that their treatment plants are being properly operated and in compliance. 

TPO: What trends are you seeing in the training needs of the seven member states?

Groves: The majority of our member states provide some form of continuing education for their wastewater operators. To supplement this, we try to offer educational programs that go beyond the standard 10 to 20 hours of training required of operators every two years or so. 

With feedback from our members, we develop programs on new technologies such as pumps, nutrients or maintenance that will help operators grow as professionals. For instance, we’re seeing a push from the EPA and some state agencies for higher nutrient removal requirements, so we’re now offering programs that cover low-cost nutrient removal theory and design. These programs often include hands-on plant tours. 

Cutbacks also led to NEIWPCC becoming the administrator of wastewater training and certification programs, acting as the certifying agency for 5,000 operators in Massachusetts and another 800 in Maine. Operators renew their licenses through us and we get everything signed off by the state, which is another benefit of being a regional entity that does a lot of training. 

These all came out of state agency cutbacks where the agencies didn’t have the staff and resources to maintain these programs. We’ve been able to assist them with that for close to 10 years now. 

TPO: Where does your training take place?

Groves: It varies a great deal. Our six-week certification exam prep class, for example, is offered at the Richard Alden Training Center in Millbury, Mass. The center is located at the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District facility, a large regional wastewater treatment plant. 

But we also take our one-day specialty programs on subjects such as pump maintenance and our collection systems and wastewater operation and maintenance programs to many locations around our states to ensure operators in remote and rural areas have access to training, too. 

We don’t try to compete with what’s out there, but try to fill gaps with programs such as an upcoming regional workshop on grease and wipes that we’re currently pulling together. 

TPO: How do you deliver all these programs?

Groves: Last year we provided 70 programs for about 1,300 operators across our seven-state region. We have two full-time trainers, who are extremely busy during the training season. Occasionally, we contract with consultants and retired water or environmental agency professionals. We also rely on some manufacturer reps to provide training in new technologies, such as pumps. 

We see more interest in hands-on training. Our two-and-a-half-day collection system and maintenance class, once mostly theoretical, now includes a hands-on component that a local manufacturer that services collection systems will help us with. 

TPO: What problems are operators having passing their certification exams in your region?

Groves: We always struggle to provide the ‘right’ training. And students think just taking the training guarantees they’ll pass the exam. That’s not what we do. We’re here to help them pass but also to help them become better operators: better able to troubleshoot, more capable of figuring out when something is going wrong, and more confident in knowing how to arrive at a solution. 

Although we take them through the two Sacramento manuals in class, we can only touch the surface of what they need to know, so they still need to do a lot more outside of class and behind the scenes. 

TPO: How have changing operator demographics affected training?

Groves: The average age of facility operators and supervisors is increasing. In fact, a lot of senior level people will be retiring soon. So we encourage competent operators coming up through the ranks to think about management positions. And because there often is no viable path for them to advance to management, another of our initiatives has been to create schools like the recent Rhode Island Wastewater Mangers’ Boot Camp. This 12-month program is designed to groom operators to become superintendents and managers. We spend a lot of time and resources working with state agencies on programs like this. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we also work to attract people to the field, including trying to overcome any perceived stigma to working in wastewater treatment. I like to say ‘It’s not your grandfather’s way of operating a treatment plant anymore.’ Today, these are interesting, technical jobs that require mechanical know-how and involve interesting opportunities to use lab equipment and computers. 

There are no shortages — yet. But the need to continually replenish this talent pool is there. 

TPO: What do you think about the need for standardized certification requirements for all states?

Groves: We have grappled with this for quite a while here. Certainly in our seven states, certification standards are all over the place. Some of our members have four certification levels, others have six or seven. Some have two-year renewals, others five. Some require several hours of continuing education annually, others less and still others none. In some states you must move up through levels, in others you can skip up to a new level if you pass the exam. So there are a host of areas where tightening up is needed. 

We just instituted a work group for wastewater certification, working with a lead contact in each of the state regulatory agencies. We hold quarterly conference calls to talk about common issues, what trends we’re seeing and what we can do about them. The outcomes become a resource to member states, giving them strength in numbers. 

And because there’s only so much any of us can do these days with ongoing budget tightening, working collaboratively really helps a lot. 

TPO: What does this work group feel about implementing a nationally standardized ABC exam?

Groves: ABC feels strongly that testing should be standardized across the country, but that also means that operators in our five ABC states sometimes get tested on topics that are not relevant to our region and not presented in class or studied. And, we’ve discussed this with ABC. 

But the other side is that we’re talking about a professional certification. We want operators to be able to take their license and move across the county and get a job elsewhere, having been exposed in training to what goes on everywhere. Still, the crux of what they are tested on should be what they experience every day in their own state. 

We’ll keep working with ABC, testing agencies and state agencies to try to close the gap. There really aren’t a lot of other options. It takes quite a bit of effort to develop your own exams, so there really is a need for experts like ABC. 

TPO: What changes would most benefit the industry?

Groves: I feel one of the most important things we do — and we all can do — is to reach out to municipal officials and managers to ensure they understand how important their wastewater facility is and the need to invest not only in infrastructure but also staff training. 

Our communities need to be aware of and proud of the job their wastewater treatment facility team does. That’s why award programs that recognize those doing really good work in the field are so important. 


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