What is the difference between licensure and certification?
In a nutshell, licensure is required by law in order to practice in a particular profession, while certification is voluntary. However, both demonstrate that an individual has met certain standards and should be qualified to perform their job. Unfortunately, in the water environment industry, we have blended these two distinctly different processes. This has led to much confusion and a severe lack of recognition of the expertise and professionalism of water and wastewater operators.
Licensing is a state or provincial grant of authority to practice a certain profession within a prescribed scope of practice. Many jurisdictions have a single license or tiered system with varying degrees of requirements that may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Under a licensure system, jurisdictions define, by statute, the tasks and function or scope of practice of a profession and provide that these tasks may be legally performed only by those who are licensed.
Certification, on the other hand, is typically voluntary and usually administered by a private organization for the purpose of providing a relevant credential to an individual who has demonstrated their ability to perform their profession competently. This is extremely important in professions such as nursing, or in our case, water and wastewater operators, where there is a public health interest and need for protection. A certification is a level of achievement and professionalism that can adapt as quickly as the profession to changing technology and environmental influences. It is similar to licensing by states and provinces, though it can and often does vary from state to state and province to province, while adhering to a minimum set of standards of competency.
The majority of, if not all, jurisdictions in the water environment field treat water and wastewater operator certification interchangeably with a state or provincial licensure program and therefore truly fail to recognize the experience, expertise, and continuing education requirements operators must acquire to be certified and to maintain certification. Since operator certifications are treated as licenses, they are rarely recognized outside of their home jurisdiction. They are even rarer at the same tier as the originally issued certification, requiring the operator to repeatedly prove themselves by resubmitting documentation and taking additional exams.
One of the main differences between voluntary certification and state-mandated licensure is that certification is usually backed by a professional body, such as WPI, who can ensure that their members (certified operators) are competent and up to date with the latest technology and practices. State licensure, on the other hand, is often left to the individual jurisdictions to administrate, leading to inconsistency in how individuals are evaluated for their ability to practice.
According to the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium: “Licensing and certification processes often co-exist in a single jurisdiction and complement one another. One example of this is when a state recognizes the existing credentialing organization that provides a stringent, legally defensible, reliable, and valid credentialing process. The state licensing entity contracts with the credentialing board to administer the credential and the examination. Once a candidate completes the credentialing process, the certification board transfers that information to the licensing entity, who then issues the license. The licensing standards match the certification standards, and the license is predicated on the professional first obtaining the certification and passing the examination, followed by the issuance of the license by the state licensing entity. In this scenario, the certification process and licensing process are synchronized; it reduces costs to the state government entity that issues the license; and both the certification and the license provide the ultimate in public protection.”
At WPI, we have created the Professional Operator Certification and Professional Designation Program to address the inconsistencies in jurisdictional certification and licensure of water and wastewater operators. We strongly believe that operator certification should be universally recognized across jurisdictional boundaries. In doing so, the water environment field will become a recognized and valued profession. A national or international certification would open up new job opportunities, provide portability so that certified operators can move between states and provinces, and create opportunities for career advancement. This not only benefits the operator, but also the public that they serve. As our industry continues to mature, it is important that we look at ways to improve how we certify and license our professionals. This will help us continue to protect health and safety while also providing opportunities for certified operators to be recognized for the professionals they have always been and for their critical role in ensuring our public health systems.