Addressing skills gaps in water

Posted by: Brendan Guiney on 28/05/2020
Water network operators connecting a new water main

What if your experienced water and sewerage operators leave? Do you have a succession plan?

How will you ensure you have suitably trained operators to provide safe drinking water and protect the environment for your local community into the future?

The ability to deliver nationally recognised water industry training is at a critical point. How will we maintain and develop competent water operators in regional NSW? 

Working in the water industry has inherent public health, safety and environmental risk. Training of operators is a key element for systemic risk control in the water industry. In 2019, Water Research Australia (WaterRA) published a study on The Value of Operator Competency, which conducted a literature review of documented water quality safety incidents:

WaterRA, The Value of Operator Competency, 2019A study by Wu, et al. (2009) demonstrated just how significant the role human error plays in water quality safety incidents. This study reviewed 62 Hrudey and Hrudey (2004) cases and reported that 78% of the errors that occurred were human related. A lack of training and competency provision resides as a vulnerability within an organisation’s system, waiting for the right circumstances to present and test frontline operator competency. The literature review demonstrated that, when competency is tested and found to be deficient, human errors occur and compromise the management of water quality safety risks. Walkerton, North Battleford, Flint and Havelock North are high profile examples of overseas incidents where this has been the case.…

Qualification v Certification, Accredited and Non-accredited training

When we discuss training, its important to understand the difference between qualified operators and certified operators, as well as accredited and non-accredited training:

  • Qualification means having completed sufficient competency units to achieve a qualification under the National Water Training Package (NWP), for example, a Certificate III in Water Industry Operations. Its important to note that attaining a qualification does not necessarily ensure that an operator has all the competencies to perform their role.  
  • Certification means having been assessed and signed off as competent after having demonstrated competency under the  Water Industry Operator Certification Framework, including continuing to develop knowledge and skills and maintaining currency of industry experience. Although the certification framework encourages operators to hold a qualification, holding a qualification is not a pre-requisite for certification.
  • Accredited training means training that is nationally recognised, and results in an Registered Training Organisation (RTO) issuing a nationally recognised VET qualification or statement of attainment following its completion or partial completion.
  • Non-accredited training means training that does not lead to a formal qualification and:- can be equipment/product specific (often supplied by manufacturers/suppliers); or, short courses that are outside the scope of the national water training package. Non-accredited training can support the ongoing development of operators, which assists with maintaining operator certification.

Accredited training has clear benefits for Local Water Utilities and their staff. It allows for portability of skills and qualifications and a consistent national standard. It can be difficult when enrolling students to make the best selection of competency units, however the recent update to the National Water Training Package to include specialist elective qualifications has made unit selection easier. An other advantage of accredited training is that it is often supported by government initiatives such as subsidised course fees.

The value of certification should not be underestimated. A major benefit of certification is that operators must hold units of competency which match the process units they need to operate at treatment plants. Certifying operators can address any gaps in competency units that have arisen after completing a qualification, as well committing to ongoing professional development of your operators, keeping their skill levels to current standards. Certification also provides significant flexibility for regional water utilities to have staff trained in a way that is fit-for-purpose, whether your utility is large or small.

Current challenges

We are approaching a critical point due to changes introduced in 2019 relating to third party agreements with registered training organisations. 

For the 2020 calendar year NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's water and wastewater treatment operations courses will not be offered as a nationally accredited course (i.e. no Certificate III or IV courses). The course content will not change from 2019 and DPIE advises that the courses remain suitable for LWU water and sewerage operators or trade waste officers in regional NSW. There are also ongoing discussions with other training providers with regard to obtaining qualifications in water and sewerage network operations.

In February 2020 COAG's Skills Council endorsed revised National Water Training Package (NWP) Certificate II and Certificate III in Water Industry Operations. There are specific packaging rules with the selection of elective units based upon which Specialisation Qualifications are chosen:

Specialist electives in national water operator trainingGroup A: Specialist Elective - Catchment and Dams
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain water catchment and dam operations.  There are fifteen (15) units of competency to select from in this group.
Group B: Specialist Elective - Civil Construction
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain civil construction operations.  There are thirty seven (37) units of competency to select from in this group.
Group C: Specialist Elective - Irrigation Water Supply
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain irrigation water supply operations.  There are twelve (12) units of competency to select from in this group.
Group D: Specialist Elective - Networks
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain network operations.  There are twenty seven (27) units of competency to select from in this group.
Group E: Specialist Elective - Treatment: Water and Wastewater*
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain treatment operations for both water and wastewater.  
Group F: Specialist Elective - Wastewater Treatment*
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain wastewater treatment operations.
Group G: Specialist Elective - Water Treatment*
This specialisation covers the skills and knowledge required to monitor, operate and maintain drinking water treatment operations.

Note: * There are twenty seven (27) units to select from within Groups E, F & G.
There is limited breadth being offered in NSW in the available units of scope to achieve a Specialist Elective. This will make it difficult for any local water utilities in NSW to complete the units needed for complex water and wastewater plants, and achieve operator certification. There will be difficulties with achieving qualifications with the networks and catchments/dams streams for the same reasons.

How will the regional water industry address these challenges?

More awareness needs to be raised on the training needs for water industry operators as an essential service for our regional communities. The NSW Public Sector Industry Training Advisory Body (NSW PS ITAB) is conducting a series of online workshops for regional council groups in June and July 2020. The ITAB will also partner with the NSW Water Directorate to undertake a training needs survey to determine the demand for water industry training across regional NSW. We urge all local water utilities to participate, and we will also liaise with large water utilities and other operators in NSW during this process.

NSW Water Directorate is also liaising with other peak industry groups including the Qldwater, Water Industry Operators Association and Water Services Association of Australia. NSW Water Directorate also sits on the Water Industry Reference Committee which is the national committee responsible for national training package qualifications relevant to water industry operations. Water Research Australia is preparing to bring industry and regulators together on further research through Value of Operator Competency Phase 2.

The intention is to demonstrate the strong need for certified water operator training and obtain additional government support where possible.

What do I need to do?

Please contact either Water Directorate or the NSW Public Service ITAB as soon as you can to tell us about your water operator training needs. If you have any questions or comments on water industry training at any stage please contact the Water Directorate.

Where to from here?

We have summarised these issues in a briefing note on behalf of Council owned local water utilities and hope to raise them with the relevant Ministers soon.

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