Become a Certified Water System Operator

Research the requirements to become a certified water system operator. Learn about the job description, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in water system operations. View article »

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  • 0:00 Certified Water System…
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Video Transcript

Certified Water System Operators

Water system operators provide clean water to the public as well as treat or recycle wastewater. The process of water treatment can be complicated, and a strong attention to detail is vital to the success of any operator. The work can be physically demanding, and the work conditions are often hazardous, requiring careful attention to safety precautions.

Career Requirements

Water system operators are expected to be analytical and detail-oriented, with strong math skills and knowledge of job-specific machines, tools and equipment. While water system operators are not required to have college degrees, those with certificates and associate's degrees in water quality management may be preferred by employers. Licensure is required through the states. Certification is available through a number of professional organizations. Generally, water system operators must begin working in lower positions and work their way up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the median annual salary for all water and waste water treatment plant and system operators, which included certified water system operators, was $44,790.

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Steps to Be a Water System Operator

How do you become a successful certified water system operator?

Step 1: Get Trained in Water Treatment

While some employers might hire operators with a basic high school diploma or equivalent, candidates may have better luck securing a position after attending a training program. Candidates might consider training and information from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which offers many different training programs depending on the type of water treatment. The EPA also has an initiative where instructors are sent to water treatment sites for on-the-job training. Additionally, employers may supply training to new hires on the job.

Step 2: Consider a Postsecondary Education

Even though some water system operators may be trained on the job, applicants who have already attained a certificate or associate's degree in water quality and wastewater treatment technology will have much better chances at securing a job. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), specific training can be attained through community colleges, technical schools and trade associations. A degree shows potential employers a commitment to the trade as well as giving prospective operators thorough knowledge and opportunities for advancement.

Be sure to research the certification requirements in your area. The EPA stresses the importance of checking the exact requirements of the state in which the candidate wants to work, as requirements for additional certification vary. The American Water Works Association provides a list of resources for prospective operators, including links to individual state requirements.

Step 3: Become Licensed

Licensure is mandatory for water system operators in all states, and requirements can vary widely by location. In some cases, licensure may transfer between states, but licensure in the specific state of employment may be necessary. Typically, there are multiple levels of licensure.

For further career opportunities, consider advanced licensing. Advanced licensure could provide higher pay, the opportunity to move to a larger water treatment plant or even help an operator become a manager of a plant. With each increase in level of licensure, operators are able to have more and more control of the plant with less supervision.

Step 4: Become Certified

Like a degree, certification will prove a candidate's dedication to water treatment and add credibility to her or his skills. The EPA offers water operator certification and recertification, ranging from training in the most basic standards of water treatment to more specialized programs. Some certificates outside of the EPA have different educational prerequisites and applicants should check to make sure they meet the requirements. The Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) provides a variety of certifications for water treatment with four different certification classifications depending on the amount of prior water treatment experience and education. Operators will receive their certification after the completion of an exam.

Step 5: Gain Promotion as a Certified Water System Operator

Because water control and treatment are integral aspects of everyday life, there are a variety of venues for advancement. Experienced operators may work for the state and become involved with water conservation or control and pollution-prevention agencies. As technicians, they might also perform contract work with industrial treatment plants, work for water treatment equipment and chemical companies or even use their expertise for conservation movements and water purification engineering mission trips throughout the world. With their experience, certification and education, operators can also teach and train new operators at vocational or technical schools.

Certified water system operators have licenses and certifications and may have associate's degrees. They are required to be analytical, mathematical and detail-oriented, and they earn a median annual salary of $44,790.

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