From The Editor | February 19, 2014

First Nationwide Operator Certification Standards Released

Laura Martin

By Laura Martin


What it means to be a water treatment professional is changing.

The job is becoming more complex as new technologies are introduced and more regulations are implemented. The workforce itself is also transitioning. One-third of current wastewater and water employees are expected to retire before 2020, which will require a significant increase in hiring and training over the next few years, reports the Water Environment Federation (WEF).   

“These changes point to the need for clarification about what is required of a water operator,” said Sandra Ralston, president of WEF. “There needs to be certification that sets minimum standards of entry and continuing education, that require a standardized body of knowledge, and gives wastewater operators the professional recognition they deserve.”  

The Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) aims to fill that need with their recently released Model Standards of Operator Certification—the first nationwide, uniform standards for certification programs for those who manage state public water and wastewater systems. While most states currently have individual operator certification programs, their criteria vary widely. If state certification programs adhere to the ABC model standards for operator certification there will be more consistency across the water industry, said Harris Seidel, ABC member and former president.

“Operator certification in this country is approaching its 100 year anniversary,” said Seidel. “When it started no two state programs were anything alike, and today we are still doing it 90 different ways. It is time to dislodge the hodgepodge.”

The model standards were first prompted by a 1970 WEF survey that reported on the state of operator certification programs in the water industry. It stated: “The unfortunate aspect lies in the fact that the programs are as diverse as they are numerous. This seriously impairs the value of certification. The survey demonstrates a critical need for a nationwide standard of personnel classification.”

To fill this need, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and more than

50 operator certification programs came together with WEF to form ABC in 1972. Since then ABC has offered voluntary certification programs for water treatment, distribution, collection, wastewater treatment, and industrial waste operators, as well as water and wastewater laboratory analysts, plant maintenance technologists, and bio-solids land appliers. Creating the model standards of operator certification has been a work in progress since the organization began.

The model standards are designed to apply to operators at all types and sizes of water treatment and distribution systems.

  “The goal is to enhance the integrity of all programs not to judge the value of any one program,” said Seidel.

The model standards will also make hiring qualified operators easier, said Chuck Van Der Kolk, a drinking water distribution system manger in Zeeland, MI.“I like to know that the person I hired has been through stringent tests and has very high standards and these model standards provide that,” he said. “If I was going to hire someone and they had an ABC certification meeting these standards, I wouldn’t have to look any further.”

Having nationally recognized model standards for certification better serves the operator, said Paul Bishop, CEO of ABC.  It makes it easier for operators to move from state to state.

“It creates a mobile workforce that allows employers to cast a wider net in procuring employees, and it makes skills easily transferable, increasing job opportunities and opportunities for advancement,” he said.

Prior to the ABC model standards, if an operator moved from one state to another, he or she would have to apply for their certification to be recognized in the new state.  If the certification criteria between the two states differed widely, as many do, the operator would have to retake the test if they wanted to be certified in the new state. This process will be much simpler for operators if most states followed the ABC model standards.

In addition to rolling out the model standards, ABC is also in the process of releasing a professional designation for operators, available this summer. This will allow operators to be certificated as “professional operators’ and add PO to their title.  

“This designation will work in a similar way that the ‘RN’ designation does for a nurse,” said Bishop. “We are doing it because we hold the belief that they are on the frontline of our public health system just like nurses.”

Both the model standards and the professional designation will increase consumer confidence and respect in the water treatment and distribution industries, said Van Der Kolk.

“Operators have always been undervalued,” he said. “But it is so important to value them because these are the people that are dealing day to day with public health. We have to maintain that integrity.”

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Image credit: " Rotorua Wastewater Treatment Plant," © 2011 Charles Chauvel used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: