By Ingrid Bella, BAYWORK Chair and Cheryl Davis, Past BAYWORK Chair
Article published in the January 2017 issue of the Wastewater Professional.
For over a decade, the water sector has been aware of the wave of Baby Boomer retirements that would, inevitably, hit our shores. The recession of 2008 and the extended process of economic recovery slowed the pace of this generational disruption. However, there were, in some agencies, factors that accelerated it – cuts to pay and benefits that encouraged experienced workers to leave jobs earlier than planned. Today, many Baby Boomers are already out the door while others prepare to go.
“Because the water sector under-invested in documentation, training materials, and knowledge-sharing systems, there may be no efficient way to help replacements acquire the knowledge learned by their predecessors.”
In the intervening years, BAYWORK has developed an understanding about the complex tangle of interrelated workforce challenges we face:
- Experienced staff members often vacate supervisory and management positions that can be filled by staff with reasonable credentials and some relevant experience. However, the knowledge and skills of individuals moving into these positions may not be equivalent to that of departing staff. Because the water sector under-invested in documentation, training materials, and knowledge sharing systems, there may be no efficient way to help replacements acquire the knowledge learned by their predecessors over an extended period of time. In many cases, the pride of agencies in their knowledgeable employees is being replaced by recognition employees have left, the knowledge was never documented, and they lost an asset they never really owned.
- The ability to find qualified candidates for journey-level skilled trade positions is hampered by (1) inadequate vocational training options (high school shop classes and union apprenticeships are in short supply), and (2), the fact that many high school graduates lack basic math, science, or communication skills.
- Retirements are occurring simultaneously with a number of other challenges to staff preparedness: new regulations; changes to infrastructure, equipment, and technologies; and rising customer expectations. The minimal technical training programs of many utilities would be swamped by these changes even if Baby Boomers kept working forever.
In a sea of change, staying on automatic pilot is not an effective strategy. In order for us to have the workforce we need to reliably perform the work we are obligated to do, utilities need to acquire new competencies, develop new working relationships, make different kinds of investments, and become proactive in areas previously considered beyond their scope.
If the public school system is not producing graduates with the basic or hands-on skills needed to become skilled trade workers, utilities may need to provide additional support. If a utility has weak programs in documentation and standard operating procedures, technical training, staff development, and inadequate knowledge transfer among employees, the utility may need to address knowledge as seriously as it addresses its physical assets.
Some utilities, such as Metro Vancouver, Colorado Springs Utilities, Littleton- Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant, and Union Sanitary District, have made major shifts in the assessment of their responsibilities in relation to workforce reliability, resulting in measurable shifts in their allocation of resources. Their programs and investments, which are described in Staff Preparedness: Lessons Learned from Star Utilities (on the BAYWORK website), prove that, with sufficient commitment and investment, even small utilities can achieve a lot.
THE BAYWORK COLLABORATION
Many water and wastewater utilities in Northern California have decided that the most cost-effective approach to meeting these challenges is through collaboration. BAYWORK, a consortium in the San Francisco Bay Area devoted to workforce reliability, is helping its members achieve more collectively than any could have achieved alone.
One of BAYWORK’s strategic objectives is candidate development – providing the outreach, recruitment, and support services needed to ensure qualified candidates are available for mission critical skilled trade and engineering jobs.
Examples of BAYWORK’s collaborative programs, projects, and products include:
- creation and distribution of brochures and posters on mission-critical jobs;
- outreach activities such as classroom presentations and career fairs;
- a website baywork.org with information on mission-critical jobs (including video interviews of employees in those jobs), a Vocational Training Map, an Employer Location Map, and Job and Internship Posting Boards;
- externships and Workshops on Wheels for teachers and counselors, to increase their awareness of jobs in the water sector, and the skills needed to perform them; and
- a Contextualized Learning Program in which subject matter experts work with teachers to create curriculum packages that include videos showing how the skills covered by the curriculum are used by well-paid skilled trade workers in the water sector.
In the area of staff preparedness, BAYWORK provides both direct learning experiences for staff and information for utilities on how to upgrade their own knowledge transfer and staff development programs.
BAYWORK’s annual Training Buffet offers employees courses in both soft skills and technical areas, with all courses taught by expert utility staff.
BAYWORK’s Workshops on Wheels takes employees to sites where utilities are doing innovative work in some aspect of water or wastewater collections or treatment. BAYWORK workshops, such as our recent training on Strategic Investment in Staff Knowledge and Using Technology to Teach, provide useful information on how to use today’s technology to help prepare the workforce of the future.
The Resources section of the BAYWORK website provides PowerPoints and videos from all of these workshops and training events, as well as How-To Guides and access to webinars.
While many of the materials in the Careers section of the BAYWORK website reflect the specifics of the San Francisco Bay Area (e.g., the location of water/wastewater utilities in the region), the Resources section of the site contains information that could help any utility upgrade its workforce reliability programs. As a result, the website is used not only regionally, but at the state, national, and international level.
Although resources from the BAYWORK website are freely available to all, there are some benefits that can only be achieved by collaboration among utilities and stakeholders at the regional level.
TURNING CHALLENGES INTO OPPORTUNITY
BAYWORK grew out of the collaborative working relationships of the operations managers of four San Francisco Bay Area utilities: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Contra Costa Water District, and East Bay Municipal Utility District. These managers realized that their collaboration was based on professional relationships that might not be continued unless the collaboration was institutionalized.
These organizations participated in a research project with the Water Research Foundation to explore the potential benefits of creating more formal partnerships in the areas of workforce development, asset management, water quality, and emergency response.
This research resulted in the finding that a more formal ongoing collaboration in the area of workforce development would be beneficial not only to the four original participating agencies, but potentially to all water and wastewater utilities in the Bay Area. In 2009, BAYWORK was formed.
BAYWORK has maintained its operational focus, but has evolved over time into an organization with a business plan, fee structure, and 29 signatories.
Over time, several basic principles have guided BAYWORK’s development:
1. Operational focus
BAYWORK‘s candidate development focus is on the mission-critical skilled trade and engineering jobs required for operational reliability. However, the products and programs developed by BAYWORK in relation to staff preparedness and optimized use of available staff are applicable to all job categories. The objective of BAYWORK is to support operational reliability through workforce reliability.
2. Research-based action
One of BAYWORK’s first projects was to partner with California’s community college system to survey current jobs and upcoming needs in relation to mission-critical skilled trades positions. BAYWORK is now partnering with JVS, a non-profit organization with expertise in workforce development, to update this survey. This knowledge has helped guide BAYWORK’s candidate development efforts. Similarly, when
BAYWORK developed a Career Roadmap for students, BAYWORK surveyed the technical career training programs in community colleges to determine which courses and experiences students needed in junior high and high school.
3. Continuing innovation
The Workshop on Wheels concept (taking students to the locations where innovative work is taking place) is an example of BAYWORK’s willingness to try new approaches to staff preparedness.
An example of this willingness to chart new territory is a current BAYWORK project, the Knowledge Transfer Toolkit.
This online interactive publication will include text, but will also provide direct links to PowerPoints, videos, and resource materials that will provide the reader with direct access to all information that BAYWORK has gathered on each topic.
4. Cost-effectiveness through collaboration
By combining their efforts, BAYWORK signatories are able to create products and programs that none could afford to create individually. This collaboration includes professional associations such as CWEA as well as educational institutions, NGOs, and workforce investment boards.
5. For utilities, by utilities
Although BAYWORK has a fee structure, the most valuable resource of BAYWORK is the time of the utility employees who manage and provide its programs. In both Workshops on Wheels and the BAYWORK Training Buffet, the instructors are utility employees. By sharing what we know, we are able to move forward together.
6. Commitment to the profession
“When professionals work together toward shared goals, freed from the constraints of what is being done or even planned by any individual agency, creative solutions emerge.”
BAYWORK is a San Francisco Bay Area organization, but its commitment is to the profession as a whole. All BAYWORK resources are open source. All information on the BAYWORK website is freely downloadable. The intent is not only to make our services better, but to help utilities everywhere serve their communities and protect the environment. For example, a BAYWORK video relating to candidate development was recently used in a capacity-building workshop of the International Water Association at its World Water Congress in Brisbane, Australia.
The power of collaboration is more than the sum of component parts; it is about synergy. When professionals work together toward shared goals, freed from the constraints of what is being done or even planned by any individual agency, creative solutions emerge. It is powerful because it is fun and it works.