By Tanya Lubner, PhD

We all know the importance of training and growing our skills, but training can be hard to find in the POU/POE water treatment industry. Unlike chemistry, the application of water treatment technologies at the point of use and point of entry is not taught in high schools, colleges, or vocational schools. Forty-five years ago, the Water Quality Association (WQA) formalized what a POU/POE water treatment professional should know by launching its professional certification program. In the absence of other training resources and through the efforts of member volunteers and staff, WQA developed its own resources, which took the forms of textbooks, live lecture presentations and eventually, even an audio book on multiple CDs.

As much of a leap forward as these resources were for the industry, they were missing one critical factor: practice. Practice—and the expensive school of hard knocks that comes with it—were still needed to build a strong practitioner in sales, installation, service and treatment configuration. In 2015, WQA launched a new training program to address the practice aspect. The textbook content was split into small chunks and field assignments were added to reinforce each concept. To help ensure the learner was able to apply the concepts in a way that was relevant to their local water chemistry, the training required that someone more experienced in the learner’s company review the completed activities. The vision was that the more experienced person would be that guide that steered the learner away from costly errors and helped them learn the correct way to do job the first time.

This approach also had the advantage of following an appren­ticeship model. Apprenticeship is considered a more credible way of preparing someone for field work in various trades and professions. The medical community calls it residency, but the model is still the same: learn from someone else’s mistakes and, with oversight and feedback and practice, not make any of your own.

The new training model seemed like a much-needed improvement that could significantly raise the level of knowledge and profes­sionalism in the industry and build credibility. It took advantage of cutting-edge training delivery technology that moved the content online and enabled training anywhere with an Internet signal. It allowed companies to capture and pass on legacy expert­ise from the rapidly graying workforce to the newcomers. And then the vision hit reality.

Those trainees who were motivated to learn, who had access to experienced personnel in their company equally motivated to give their time as mentors, did well. Over 300 industry members completed the training and earned certification titles with the new program. But those who could not make the time found it difficult to stay on track and ended up dropping out. With the uptick in business and the squeeze in available field personnel through the pandemic, the time for training and for mentoring shrank even further.

Thanks to the dedication of its member volunteers, WQA has been working on a solution. We’ve thoroughly reviewed the training curricula for the Certified Installer, Certified Water-Treatment Representative and Certified Water Specialist for relevancy and streamlined them. Next we need to address the stumbling block of mentoring and keeping learners on track.

Practice continues to be an important aspect of training, as does learning from experienced practitioners. Several of the member volunteers pointed out the advantages of in-person training, such as the attendees having a better opportunity to focus on the training because of the dedicated time, interaction with the instructor and a more accessible presentation of the training content than reading. Of course, the drawbacks of organizing in-person training include the cost of travel, the expense of securing a location and having to take field personnel out of the field. The cost of that training becomes unmanageable for many. Plus, taking something that needs practice and months to truly learn and trying to cram it into a two-day session is ineffective. Research has also shown that without practice using new information, we lose 75 percent of it within six days.[1]

So what can we do?

The silver lining of the last two years of disruption to social interactions is that many of us are now a lot better at video conferencing and so are the tools available to us, like Zoom. Chat functions, polls and breakout rooms let us turn lectures into conversations and round table-like problem solving, all of which contribute to engagement and retention of materials. We can also foster learning from peers, discuss best practices and feel part of this great community that strives to do its best work and improve customers’ quality of life.

In-person, short, frequent sessions with hands-on practice are still the best way to train. Any business owners and trainers who’ve helped take employees and mentees through the WQA textbooks and online training know the advantage of the short, regular meetings and a formal training schedule. That’s why WQA recently launched remote Instructor-led training over Zoom. The combination of the interactive instructor-led training and short online and field activities for homework lets us get a lot closer to the ideal way to train. In addition, the instructor eliminates the need for an in-house mentor and the weekly class schedule helps keep learners on track.

Eighty registrants took advantage of the weekly Instructor-Led Installer Training that started in January 2022. The instructors are industry veterans and include a former plumbing inspector to offer guidance. The 16-week course follows the updated curriculum and meets once a week for an hour. Two sessions are offered to accommodate an early morning time slot for the East Coast/ Midwest and West Coast/Mountain time zones. Participating installers are able to attend the training while they’re still fresh and then head out into the field. In between the weekly classes, they complete about an hour of homework that the instructors review. The response has been quite positive. Learners are enjoying the interactive nature and picking up tidbits of information to which they wouldn’t normally have access. The installer course will be repeated in June.

In April, shortly after the annual convention, WQA will launch the first of the instructor-led training courses for sales representatives and water treatment specialists. The focus of the first course will be on identifying water problems and contaminants and collecting the necessary data to select the correct treatment. Subsequent courses will address treatment technology operation and sizing and finally, the application of treatment for problem water.

Remote instructor-led training helps bridge the gap between the ideal of having an experienced in-house trainer with limitless time to train and the reality of insufficient time to devote to such pursuits. It provides a guided pathway and manageable steps to onboard new hires, improve the performance of existing employees and grow professionalism in the industry. For more information, visit wqa.org/education.

Reference
1. Schacter, D. L. (2009). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers. p. 243. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.

About the author
Serving as Water Quality Association’s Director of Professional Certification & Training since 2005, Tanya Lubner oversees the technical training content and delivery, certification exams, policies of the professional certification program, as well as program marketing and operations. She provides oversight for the technical education program for WQA’s annual convention and is the WQA staff liaison to the Professional Certification & Training Committee.

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