From The Editor | August 25, 2015

Get PO'ed: 5 Reasons To Achieve 'Professional Operator' Certification


By Kevin Westerling,

A few letters after your name can make all the difference in your career — just ask any RN, CPA, or PE. They prove your ability, expertise, and work ethic. Such certification functions well for countless trades, so why not for water and wastewater operators?

While there are levels of achievement and licenses available to operators, they generally don’t transfer from one state to another, and the qualifying criteria is equally scattershot. As important as the job is — nothing short of ensuring the safety, supply, and cleanliness of Earth’s most precious resource — an internationally recognized measure of aptitude seems appropriate.

And it actually does exist, though the program is still in its nascent stage. The Professional Operator (PO) certification is offered through the Certification Commission for Environmental Professionals (C2EP), an independent arm of the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), and available for operations including water treatment, water distribution, wastewater collection, and wastewater treatment. For the PO certification to have true impact, however, it needs industry-wide adoption.

PO Program Benefits

I asked Paul Bishop, CEO of ABC, to state the case for PO certification by listing the top five benefits for operators. Here’s the list:

  1. Better pay

The majority of certified individuals report higher earnings as a result of earning certification. One of the primary purposes of PO certification is to recognize operators as professionals and give them the opportunity to earn a professional designation through certification. Other occupations have successfully professionalized in this way (think engineers, accountants, etc.). Industry organizations all forecast a 30 to 40 percent loss of the operator workforce in the next 10 years. “Operator” needs to be viewed as an attractive and rewarding career choice with increasing opportunity for advancement.

  1. Accountability

Another way in which occupations professionalize is by demonstrating to the public that they can regulate themselves without government oversight. A unique aspect of the PO program is that it is the only internationally-offered water environment operator certification program that requires all applicants and those holding certification to agree to adhere to a code of conduct. This ensures that all PO applicants, candidates, and certificants hold each other accountable to a shared set of principles. It also demonstrates to the public that POs can be trusted to serve their communities responsibly and with integrity.

  1. By operators, for operators

In order to best conform to industry standards for certification programs, the PO program was developed and is administered by water environment operators. This ensures that those with real-world operations experience are empowered to make decisions affecting the program. This principle is extended to all aspects of the program, including the development of program policies, eligibility criteria, examinations, execution of discipline and appeals, and other essential program elements. Prospective applicants can rest assured that all requirements for certification were carefully deliberated and codified by their peers.

  1. Identifiable benchmarks for competency

To get the program where it is today, C2EP’s highly qualified volunteer subject-matter experts considered the insight and knowledge of over 7,200 professionals. This extensive research ensures that the scope of the PO program is highly representative of the most critical aspects of water environment operations. This means that regardless of where a PO may be located, he or she has demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to effectively operate. This creates PO-to-PO, PO-to-employer, and PO-to-public assurance in a PO’s competency.

  1. Inter-jurisdictional mobility

In the same way that a Professional Engineer (PE) designation can be recognized across state, provincial, or country borders, PO certification represents a uniform and transparent credential that can be recognized by any operator certification authority and/or employer. The PO program constitutes an efficient certification process that can greatly assist operators and certification authorities alike. In situations requiring expediency, the PO program’s on-demand processing and testing offers candidates a quick, but rigorous, certification solution.

Getting Certified

To get certified as a PO, candidates need to create a profile at, submit an application along with the necessary documentation, wait for review and confirmation of eligibility, then register for and complete the examination. And pass the test, of course.

According to Bishop, applicants who have documentation in order and schedule examination as soon as they are eligible can wrap up the entire process in two weeks. Applications are accepted from anywhere in the world, any day of the year. C2EP is also actively pilot-testing reciprocity arrangements with a number of other certification programs/agencies to accelerate the visibility and acceptance of the PO designation. The Ohio EPA has jumped on board, and ABC has created a Certification Contacts Tool to help potential applicants determine which jurisdictions recognize PO certification.

Industry Buy-In

In order for the PO movement to succeed, still more need to come aboard. Bishop recalled previous failures by others in designing a certification model that was inclusive, but noted that the PO program is designed differently.

“Since 1967, the industry has recognized the need for uniform standards in certification. Several organizations have launched countless, well-meaning efforts to recognize operators as professionals and remove barriers to reciprocity, but they were self-contained and ineffective. Conversely, the PO program was built upon the tenets of inclusion and transparency, enlisting the participation and input of all industry stakeholders. By its very nature, the PO program requires constant and widespread input in order to remain valid and relevant.”

Bishop added that PO proliferation needs to be encouraged at the local level — by utility managers, who can pair certification with a wage increase, and by local/regional member associations (MAs) working with certification agencies to establish PO recognition.

“For the PO to function as designed,” he said, “organizations need to buy in.”

It seems, then, that the fate of the Professional Operator certification program, including the potential benefits described herein, is tied directly to industry support. It’s up to the operators themselves to decide if those two letters after their names are worthwhile.

To PO, or not to PO — that is the question.