Water treatment operators are an engaged and passionate workforce, but are they being provided the necessary training that delivers the skills and competencies required to safety fulfil the role? The capability of water treatment operators to manage and maintain water infrastructure is essential to preventing water quality incidents. Hrudey and Hrudey (2014) reported that 78% of the errors that occurred were human related and a lack of training and competency provision resides as a vulnerability for organisations.
Skills shortage and response
In response to a growing skills shortage in the Australian water industry, in 2011 a multi-agency stakeholder group initiated a program that culminated in the development of the Water Industry Operator Certification Framework 2018 (the Framework). The certification aimed to provide an assurance to regulators, communities and the users of drinking water and recycled water that operators be competent to manage the quality of drinking water, wastewater and/or recycled water (Water Industry Operator Certification Taskforce, 2018).
Although development of the Framework was an industry-led initiative to provide adequate training, the skills and competency of water treatment operators still remains an issue in 2021.
A Water RA project was initiated in 2019 to determine the value of operator competency and make recommendations for the future, recognising a chronic skills shortage and a rapidly changing workplace environment brought about by the implementation of new technology and automation. This project found that only 10 per cent of water utilities were using the Framework and another 10 per cent were only considering using it. The slow uptake was attributed to a lack of a regulated minimum requirements in competency, as well as confusion regarding the certification process (Bartlett, 2019).
Charged with the objective of demonstrating the value and benefits of frontline operators being equipped with the right level of knowledge, skills and experience for the roles/responsibilities that they undertake in relation to drinking water treatment; Water RA undertook research to determine what recommendations, if any, would be required to ensure that the industry workforce is well prepared to meet service delivery obligations now and into the future.
According to Bartlett (2019), Water RA recommended as a priority that organisations undertake a thorough review of their frontline operator training and competency provision as an immediate way of seeking to more greatly understand “the adequacy and efficacy of training provision, the alignment of training to roles and responsibilities and the water quality risks managed.”
Due to the lack of mandatory training requirements and the confusion caused owing to its absence, it is unsurprising that the industry has not observed a significant adoption of the Framework. The financial, productivity and administrative burden it would put on water utilities to adopt non-mandatory procedures would likely lead to many questions on the true value of investing in the training and cause scepticism on its validity.
A survey found that only 25 per cent of business managers thought that training would measurably improve the performance of their people, and only 12 per cent of employees actively applied the new skills presented in training (Glaveski, 2019).
Addressing these perceptions would more likely require proven methodologies aimed at increasing user confidence and subsequently, leading to an increase in the likelihood of implementation.
Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick (2016) discusses a method for improving confidence which could be applied to changing the mindsets of organisations in their use of the Framework.
Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation Model (the Model) aims to:
Provide continual feedback to ensure the training is workplace specific and adapts to changing environment,
Maximise the transfer of learning to behaviour and the management of water quality risks, and
Demonstrate the value of training to the utility and back to the industry at large.
The four levels of the of the Model are illustrated below.
The Model is a training evaluation tool, but should also be considered in implementation of the Framework working backwards to achieve desired outcomes:
Level 4 Results - Firstly, water utilities need to set the objectives that need to be attained. In this instance, it could be a statement resembling, “protecting public health through the safe and reliable treatment of water.’
Level 3 Behaviour - These are the behaviours required to achieve the objective, and link-in with the capability element of the Framework which requires employers to sign-off on operator capability. The Model could assist in the development of processes that monitor, encourage and reward critical behaviours, thus reinforcing the required behaviours. An important finding of WaterRA project was that ensuring operator competency requires a comprehensive site based technical competency program that includes accredited training but also includes site specific training and assessment. (Bartlett, 2019)
Level 2 Learning – The National Water Training Package contains all the relevant training units including evaluation checks to garner: the employee’s knowledge (“I know it”), their skill (“I can do it), attitude (“I believe this is worthwhile to do on the job”), confidence (“I think I can do it on the job”), and commitment (“I will do it on the job”).
Level 1 Reaction - This level looks at the relevance of the training and eliminating any barriers to learning (Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick, 2016).
Adoption of the Model could provide feedback to the water utility, training provider and the Water Industry Operator Certification Taskforce (qldwater, 2019). Such a process would demonstrate the Framework was achieving the desired outcomes, provide feedback to constantly improve the training, and ideally support greater industry uptake. This was found to be the case by Lin, Chen, and Chuang (2011) who when using The Model for training reactions, saw a direct and positive influence on learning, behaviours and organisational commitment.
Bartlett, S. (2019). Value of Operator Competency: Final Report Project #1111. Retrieved from Adelaide, Australia: https://www.waterra.com.au/_r9103/media/system/attrib/file/2101/Project%201111%20Final%20Report_HR.pdf
Glaveski, S. (2019). Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/10/where-companies-go-wrong-with-learning-and-development. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/10/where-companies-go-wrong-with-learning-and-development
Hrudey, S., & Hrudey, E. (2014). Ensuring Safe Drinking Water: Learning from Frontline Experience with Contamination: American Water Works Association.
Kirkpatrick, J. D., & Kirkpatrick, W. K. (2016). Kirkpatrick's four levels of training evaluation. Alexandria, VA: Association For Talent Development.
Lin, Y.-T., Chen, S.-C., & Chuang, H.-T. (2011). The Effect of Organizational Commitment on Employee Reactions to Educational Training: An Evaluation using the Kirkpatrick Four-level Model. International Journal of Management, 28(3), 926-938. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/888688081?accountid=13380
qldwater. (2019). Water Industry Operator Certification. Retrieved from https://qldwater.com.au/Skills_water_operator_certification
Water Industry Operator Certification Taskforce. (2018). Water industry Operator Certification Framework 2018: Drinking Water, Wastewater, Recycled Water. Retrieved from https://qldwater.com.au/public/WIOA-Combined-Certification-Framework-October-2018.pdf