Across the globe, there is a workforce of dedicated professionals who ensure water resources are protected. These are the professionals who operate the water and wastewater treatment facilities and who are, in fact, the first, last, and most important control on the quality of water delivered to households and discharged into oceans, lakes, and rivers. Despite their role on the frontline of our public health systems, there is very little recognition of certified operators’ service to our communities.
Early in the 20th century, New Jersey became the first state to certify operators of water and wastewater treatment plants. Other states followed; and by 1970, over 40 states had certification programs for water and/or wastewater treatment operators. A natural next step was recognition by industry leaders that there was a need for an organization that offered a mechanism to coordinate and provide support to certification programs.
In 1972 the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) was established for just this purpose. In 2012, the non-profit member driven association will celebrate its 40th anniversary. ABC’s member programs, Board of Directors, and volunteers will not only celebrate four decades of progress in certification, but a bright future that includes greater recognition for those who serve as first responders to our water environment. One active volunteer says even as the climate is changing, recognizing the critical work that operators perform has never been more important.
“Environmental certifiers have tough jobs,” says Kim Dyches, an ABC Board of Directors member. “While staff and budgets are shrinking, regulations are still there, and certifiers are being asked to do more with less.” Dyches oversees the water treatment program for the Utah Water Operator Certification Commission and has spent a number of years giving back through service on ABC’s Board and committees. It’s those such as Dyches who have seen much advancement in certification over the years and are excited about new Association initiatives.
“Our Strategic Planning Committee sat down in early 2011 to map out where we, as an organization that supports certification programs, hope to be in a few years,” explains Jenny Chambers, President. Chambers says raising the professional recognition of operators was one of the many initiatives established by the group.
In a world where regulations and funding often dominate conversation among certifiers and industry leaders, one of the industry’s most tireless operator advocates is quick to explain why this topic is worth discussing.
“Like many well-recognized professions, our operators work hard and put in long hours and have to meet certain requirements to be hired; but what’s missing is public recognition and knowledge of how well-trained they are,” says Chuck Van Der Kolk, American Water Works Association (AWWA) representative on ABC’s Board of Directors. Van Der Kolk, who is a certified operator and the water supervisor for the Zeeland Board of Public Works in Michigan, says that while many professions have a designation they can include with their title, operators are able to earn a class level or grade of certification, but are missing the distinguishing “gold star” that can also serve as a tool to encourage career achievement.
“It’s about making sure there is a true appreciation for what they do and recognizing those who are at the top of their profession,” he expresses.
And how might the organization go about this initiative? “We have our work cut out for us,” says Van Der Kolk who also serves on ABC’s newly created Professional Designation Task Force. Van Der Kolk’s excitement is shared by David Flowers, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) representative on ABC’s Board of Directors.
“We’re building partnerships with other organizations for this important work–this will involve the entire water and wastewater community,” says Flowers. “At the end of the day, it’s really working to change the public’s perception of an operator.”
This goal is bold but important for the organization that saw certification programs in their infancy and can remember a time when operators had virtually no recognition beyond their state or province.
“During our founding year, there were 91 certification programs in the US,” explains Harris Seidel, the Association’s first president. “Of these 27 voluntary and 64 mandatory programs, each operated differently. We had success with an excess of diversity. It was a time of splendid confusion.”
Seidel explains that 25 programs from 21 states signed on as charter members of ABC at an organizational meeting in Chicago, on June 3, 1972. “By the end of 1973, about 18 months later, ABC had grown to 51 member programs representing 38 states, four provinces, and two other entities.”
In the past four decades, important industry advancements such as collaboration between programs to promote reciprocity, reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982, certification updates published in the Federal Register, development of documents assisting in certification program establishment, and ABC’s development of a nationally validated standardized exam have been essential preludes to one of today’s current initiatives–giving operators the credit they deserve by enhancing their professional recognition.
While the program may take time to implement, those passionate about the cause say it’s worth the wait. “Operators have many requirements to fulfill to hold their certification,” says Van Der Kolk. “There are education requirements, exam requirements, and continuing education requirements all in place to ensure they are qualified to operate a plant. It is no different than a paramedic, firefighter, police officer, or nurse, but their profession isn’t yet viewed that way.”
For Seidel, ABC is taking steps in the right direction. “This is exactly what ABC should be doing–leading the way,” he says.Speaking for the industry and Association, Seidel’s optimistic spirit is evident in the famous words often heard when he addresses membership, volunteers, or staff: “The best is yet to come.”