The ABCs of National Operator Certification

ABC will soon debut its new certification — the Professional Operator designation. Will this uniform credential resolve the longstanding issue of reciprocity for water and wastewater operators?
The ABCs of National Operator Certification
Currently, each state has its own certification program, and operators moving from one state to another can have difficulty navigating the requirements.

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Imagine a job market in which a water or wastewater operator can earn just one credential that’s recognized in any state or Canadian province where he or she would like to work.

That won’t happen overnight, but it’s a long-term vision the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) has for its new Professional Operator (PO) voluntary designation.

ABC’s Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP) is introducing the new PO designation for wastewater treatment and collection system and water treatment and distribution system operators. It will be available next month and has already drawn inquiries from hundreds of operators.

ABC says the offering is built on operator certification best practices that “represent the critical skills and knowledge universal to operators anywhere in the world.” Initially, the designation signifies operators’ commitment to the profession and their expertise in the industry; it boosts their professional stature and the credibility and reputation of the utilities that employ them.

In the longer run, though, a uniform credential could help resolve the longstanding issue of reciprocity for operators who wish to transfer their licenses and certifications when they move to a new job in another state.

Promising solution
At present, each state has its own certification program, and operators moving from one state to another can have difficulty navigating the requirements, notes Gavin Moore, certification program administrator with ABC. That’s especially true when moving to a state that does not offer reciprocity for certification.

Moore believes that ABC, which was founded in 1972 to foster certification of water and wastewater professionals throughout North America and promote more uniformity among certification programs, is uniquely positioned to offer a single, universally accepted designation.

He notes that ABC members include nearly 100 certifying authorities, representing more than 40 states, 10 Canadian provinces and territories, plus international and tribal programs. These programs have certified some 240,000 water and wastewater operators, lab analysts, plant maintenance technologists, biosolids land appliers, and backflow prevention assembly testers.

Megan Baker, ABC director of operations, notes that most ABC members already use certification exams created by ABC: “A primary reason they join ABC is for access to those exams and our exam service.”

Breaking down barriers
Moore observes that water and wastewater certifications proliferated in the 1970s after passage of national clean-water legislation: “The states had ample time to develop their own standards and guidelines, and as a result there are essentially 50 ways of going about state operator certification. None of them are wrong, but for operators, trying to discern what is needed from state to state becomes rather difficult.”

For the immediate future, ABC and C2EP hope to develop a broker service, helping operators who hold its certifications navigate state-to-state transitions. The association would maintain a database of all holders of ABC/ C2EP credentials, to contain their education, training, and all certifications, including those from state programs.

ABC also would compile a complete catalog of certification requirements for each state. Then, for an operator wishing to relocate, “We could run a cross-comparison to help that operator understand exactly what he or she needs to move to a given state,” says Baker.

Toward universal recognition
The longer-term plan is to work methodically to encourage each state’s certification authority to recognize and accept the PO credential. “The PO certification we’re launching now is based on a lot of research into what state programs are doing and what they feel is most important,” says Baker. “We worked with more than 4,000 operators to develop this program, getting input on what they do and what they believe are the most important and critical aspects of their work. We’re confident that a certification we can offer at a national level will address the most important pieces of what state certification is already addressing.

“We have worked with the Ohio EPA to seek recognition of the PO designation, so that operators who earn the PO and complete our exam can apply for reciprocity to Ohio. That means operators can trust that if they are certified through our program, they will meet the requirements for Ohio. So we’re proceeding on a case-by-case basis.”

Significantly, the PO designation mimics state certifications in that it includes four levels (see the accompanying chart). An operator seeking the PO designation would not necessarily need to start at the lowest level and work up. “For example, those who are at the highest level of certification in their state and have the education and experience they need to meet our highest level could enter our program at that level, so long as they pass our exam,” Moore says.

He concludes, “Ultimately we want to help operators, but our purpose for being is to help our member certification programs. By offering the PO designation, we’re giving them a solid certification program that they can have confidence in when it comes to reciprocity. We feel this is going to be a really beneficial offering for all parties.”


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