Real-Life Testing

Training committee director takes pride in fostering well-rounded water and wastewater professionals.

Real-Life Testing

Truss shows off a device used to take GPS coordinates while talking to a group of employees at the City of Toledo Water Distribution Facility in Toledo, Ohio. He was there talking to the group of workers about new career opportunities within the water department as new technology progresses. 

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Curtis Truss believes that training has to do much more than teach aspiring operators how to pass certification exams.

His goal as executive director of the Operator Training Committee of Ohio is to give newly minted drinking water and wastewater professionals a thorough understanding of the facilities and processes they will encounter on the job.

“I tell them: We’re not here to help you pass the exam. We’re here to make you a better operator. I want you to understand the theory of operations. You may never see a flocculator, but we’re going to find a layman’s way for you to understand it.

“You need to be well rounded because you never know where the opening might be. Since there has been a downsizing of personnel in some of the facilities, in a medium-sized city you could be working in water one day and wastewater the next.”

Expansive programs

OTCO’s broad curriculum covers treatment plant operations, wastewater collections, drinking water distribution, backflow prevention, wastewater microbiology, chlorine training, well drilling and more. Training is offered through classroom programs, webinars, workshops, distance learning and correspondence courses.

“We’re basically a vocational training school,” Truss says. “We cover anything to do with water and wastewater, from basic to advanced. We do GIS and asset management. When the Lead and Copper Rule came along in the 1990s, we traveled around the state doing lead and copper training. We’ll do almost anything the Ohio EPA or Ohio Department of Health asks us to do and that fits within our articles of incorporation.”

The committee staff includes eight full-time people and about 20 adjunct instructors, most of whom work remotely.

OTCO operates as an independent nonprofit training organization, in conjunction with the AWWA Ohio Section, the Ohio Water Environment Association and the Ohio Rural Water Association. It is funded solely by revenue from course fees.

Deep background

Truss has earned an AWWA George Warren Fuller Award, an Ohio Section AWWA Richard F. Melick Award for Education, and the WEF Five S Award for outstanding career achievement. He grew up in Springfield, Ohio; in the early 1970s he studied engineering at The Ohio State University and worked during summers at his hometown wastewater treatment plant. He decided to pursue a career in water and wastewater and in 1975 left college to work in the industry.

While working in Springfield he took a wide variety of training courses. In 1984 he began teaching advanced water treatment as an adjunct instructor for OTCO. In 1988 he was appointed as an Ohio Section AWWA Southwest District representative to the OTCO board of trustees. In the same year, he left Springfield to become a water resource engineer for water and wastewater systems at Central State University, one of the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges, located in Wilberforce, Ohio.

There he also trained people from overseas, including from some African nations, in water and wastewater. He left the university in 1990 to become OTCO’s assistant director. By then, he was an Ohio EPA “double three,” meaning he held Class III drinking water and wastewater operator certifications. He was promoted to OTCO executive director in 1998.

Filling a need

OTCO plays a key role in filling the pipeline with new operators to replace those retiring. “We have a major shortage of people who want to be in this field,” Truss says. There are few other sources of training in the state. Truss notes that some community colleges have tried offering two-year degrees; he considers that level of schooling unnecessary, although desirable.

“Go ahead and get a degree if you want to be a plant superintendent or service director,” he says. “But to get to the top of the operations food chain, you don’t need it. You need the experience and the education.” OTCO, he says, has the advantage of providing courses taught by people with extensive hands-on experience in the industry.  

About 80% of students at OTCO are already working in the field; they’ve been hired by a city or village and have two years to attain a Class I license. The remaining 20% are largely manufacturing workers changing careers after being laid off.

“They come to us through Job and Family Services, or some rehabilitative service,” Truss says. “We get them a paid internship with a community wherever we can get them in. We put them in a place where no one will get upset that we’re taking somebody’s job away. Generally, that’s something like asset management, or GIS, or some other environmental project. We don’t try to fill a union position with one of our interns.”

People trained at OTCO often have a leg up when applying for positions because they have schooling backed by on-the-job experience, which students in college programs may not get, Truss observes. If two people with the same certification are competing for jobs, and one already has experience, “Who do you think is going to get hired first?”

No shortcuts

OTCO training courses typically last 14 weeks and aim to give students a sound foundation. Teaching to the exam is not even an option. “I can’t see a state exam,” says Truss. “By law I’m not allowed to once I’ve been certified. We’re not even allowed to talk about what’s on the exam. If we discuss the exam, take a picture of it, or reproduce it in any way, we can be prosecuted by the attorney general.

“Some students want the answers to the exam, and that’s all. But they need to understand it and be able to apply it. It’s not enough to know that the answer is total coliform. They need to understand what total coliform is and why it’s an indicator organism.”

A well-rounded education is essential in giving new operators flexibility. Truss notes that at facilities in major cities, like Cleveland, operators may have highly specific roles limited to a single process. But a smaller community may want someone able to move easily from one responsibility to another, including work on collection or distribution networks.

Ohio relies on licensing exams prepared by the Association of Boards of Certification, which are largely built around what operators need to know to perform on the job. Truss insists on going deeper. “ABC has done a really good job, but the next generation of operators are different from the group that is just leaving. So much more is expected of them in terms of knowledge level.

“Say it’s one o’clock in the morning, you’re running the wastewater treatment plant and something is going wrong. You shouldn’t have to wait until the boss comes in the morning. You should be trained well enough to know what to do.”

Trainers needed

Just as operators face rising challenges, qualified trainers are increasingly hard to find, Truss observes. The pay for adjunct instructors often isn’t enough to entice people with expertise and field experience; some employers are unwilling to give their team members time off to teach; some professionals are simply too busy with their lives.

“When I started teaching in 1984, it wasn’t because I chose to,” Truss recalls. “My boss came in and said, ‘Hey, I heard you got your Class III. I need you to teach this class.’ I was fortunate enough to have people encourage me to move with my passion and educate operators in the field on the fundamentals of water and wastewater.

“You want somebody who is not just knowledgeable in the field but who can sit down with that operator who works at a small aeration plant, or maybe a lagoon system. He needs to get a Class I, and you need to relate to him even though you work for one of the large facilities.

“You have all this expertise, and this guy does everything but put the Christmas lights out. He’s got a lagoon system and now you’re trying to explain the activated sludge process. That’s the challenge, finding somebody who wants to take the extra time to do it right, not just for the money but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Nevertheless, Truss and the OTCO team are there, not just offering formal instruction but fulfilling the role played in most states by an operator association.

“The operators can call us literally any day of the week when they want some assistance. I say, ‘OK, I’ll send someone around. Or I’ll say, ‘I’m going to be in your area. Why don’t I just come by and see what you’ve got?’ We fill that void for many operators.” 


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