The value of professional certification & continuing education
23 years ago, I had one child and another on the way. I had just moved to Michigan from Indiana with my wife and was trying to figure out why I did not want to teach in a formal classroom despite having gone to school to do just that. I needed a job that provided insurance while I figured it all out. This is how I stumbled into Wonderland, or the Matrix, or what is otherwise known as the water treatment industry.
I started out working for a small dealership with little structure, leadership or training, but they did offer health insurance. There was some training available through the manufacturer we represented, but it was obviously and rightfully biased toward that brand. I wanted to know how things worked. When I was presenting these products, I wanted to be able to back up what I was claiming with something other than “that is what the brochure says.”
The Benefit of Knowledge
That is how I came to connect with the Water Quality Association (WQA). I had no idea what an association was or how important they were as an advocate for this industry. All I knew was that they had a set of certifications that seemed objective. So I ordered the books and soon found myself immersed in new topics I had never heard of, as well as some I had barely managed to pass through college, such as chemistry.
These books taught me a lot and I was able to take the exam and get my certification. When I went into outside sales nearly a year after starting with this dealership, I was armed with the knowledge of how things worked. I knew all the academic terms, and I proceeded to share all that knowledge with my first prospects. As it turns out, the benefit of having the knowledge is not that you can confuse your customers with it. That’s a recipe for a knowledgeable poor person. It did however allow me to recognize and solve those unusual and challenging situations where the customer said something like, “I have had three companies try this before, and they have not been able to fix it. Why will you be different?” I was able to approach my job with confidence and actual knowledge that went beyond the typical bubble training that limited so many of my competitors.
I quickly came to understand that what was really needed was a combination of the academics the certification program offered and the practical knowledge. Separately they are okay, but together they are like peanut butter and chocolate or kettle cooked potato chips and cottage cheese. They just fit.
When I later became regional sales manager for the dealership that had purchased the original company, I made certification mandatory for the dozen or so sales professionals I served. However, instead of just giving them the books, I held weekly book study meetings where we could learn the academics and figure out together how to apply them to the practical world. We also discussed how and what was appropriate to share with the customers and when.
The result was a team with extremely competent certified professionals. We were able to promote this fact in our advertising and our sales and service activities. We won contracts with commercial, state and local organizations because we could talk intelligently about the issues, and we had the credentials to support our ability.
Education Evolving Over Time
The WQA certification program has changed since I came into the business. It has gone virtual, it has adapted to include newer technologies and it acknowledges the benefit of combining the practical with the academic by introducing the mentor concept where someone with field experience helps guide someone through the program.
The benefits of certification have never been more valuable as national, state and local regulators look to address issues with deteriorating water delivery infrastructure and emerging contaminates. Our industry offers proven short- and long-term and fiscally responsible solutions. Industry professionals who can speak the language and demonstrate their validated credentials will reap the biggest benefit of this opportunity.
As a WQA Modular Education Program (MEP) mentor, I saw a surge in sign ups for the certification program when COVID-19 first hit and we were all working from our home offices. There were many potential certified professionals dedicating themselves to the program. Then the world opened back up and the efforts to complete the program took a back seat to just trying to play catch up and handle the everyday challenges of our business. However, the opportunities and advantages that certification will bring have not gone away. In fact, the need is greater than ever and these opportunities will be more readily available to those professionals who can see the long game. Those who can find an hour a week to continue or even begin the process of completing certification will look back on the accomplishment with pride as they reap the benefits.
The program is hard. It is meant to be. It needs to be in order for it to be respected and credible. It requires navigating a knowledge base and computer program that may be confusing and challenging for many, but it is a not a challenge one needs to do alone. As someone who believes strongly in the global importance of our industry, I encourage you to seek out a mentor and peers around you who you can join to meet the challenges with locked arms and support.
If you already have your certification, I encourage you to use it and promote it. If you have already started the path to certification, re-commit to completing it. If you have not yet started, make the commitment. You will not regret the accomplishment.