Managing the Modern Utility Workforce

Managing the Modern Utility Workforce

While nearly every water utility anticipates increasing difficulties in hiring technically qualified employees, Orange County Utilities in Orlando, Fla., has designed a utility-wide approach to retaining and developing in-demand expertise and leadership.

The retirement wave is real and gaining momentum. Public utilities must compete for talent more now than ever before. They hire their most valued technicians from a shrinking supply. To fulfill public purposes and accomplish regulatory goals, citizen-owned utilities must become employers of choice. Contemporary utility management?s most fundamental challenges may be found in retaining employees with critical skills, guiding employees to gain needed skills and encouraging people with leadership talent to step up and do what they do best.

?One Utility United Through Excellence? is Orange County Utilities? vision, defined in its strategic plan, which serves as the foundation to prepare the workforce for the future. The Skilled Workforce Achievement Program (SWAP) is uniquely designed to meet the short-term, long-term and distinct personnel needs of seven divisions and Orange County Utilities as a whole. SWAP also addresses Orange County Utilities? larger purpose of motivating, unifying and strengthening employees. Produced through a series of employee-led teams, workshops and other means of personnel involvement, SWAP connects skilled leadership and staff to future career paths within Orange County Utilities.

The SWAP Concept

SWAP is based on a framework familiar to engineers, chemists, licensed operators and other professionals with established degrees or steps to certification and licensure. An across-the-board application of these principles in a utility, however, distinguishes SWAP from business as usual. SWAP is an innovation that maximizes Orange County Utilities? workforce adaptation to a future of impending automation, increasing technology, learning and growth.

The approach is straightforward. First, SWAP defines and broadly communicates the means for employees to acquire technical skills relevant to duties of established positions. This variety of technical skills is then grouped in associated skill sets. Skill sets are layered in order of progressive difficulty, ascending as tiers of qualification and accomplishment, roughly levels entitled: baseline, intermediate (qualifying) and master. Progression paths describe accumulated skills which may reach across the full span of a career. They are characterized by common testing, training and resulting authentication of skills. Finally, in recognition of verified achievement, as long as they are aligned as assets to Orange County Utilities? Strategic Plan, pre-established monetary incentives will be provided for each skill gain along a progression path.
Orange County Utilities? approach is transparent, repeatable in other similar utilities and can be accommodated to enhance (not replace) established organizational structures. Designing SWAP required what OCU called the Triple A Bottom line:

  • Anticipate workforce changes.
  • Act immediately to align workforce development to the strategy plan.
  • Acknowledge the good and bad lessons learned from similar efforts in the past.

This Is Urgent

SWAP results are measured in the short term. The local market for electricians and mechanics are only two examples of skill sets experiencing increasingly competitive hiring. Both electricians and mechanics are essential to Orange County Utilities? daily plant and field operations yet 35 percent of the current workforce is scheduled to retire, will be over the age of 62 and eligible to retire, or will have more than 30 years of service. Moreover, the economy of central Florida is recovering. Large Orlando-area employers regularly recruit journeyman electricians.

In order to develop essential technical service providers in the public sector, water utilities frequently face long-standing restrictions in their ability to be the employer of choice: low pay scales, slow advancement, declining value in benefits and inflexible hierarchies. There are many more areas of expertise for which the demand is increasing. People capable of conducting complex operations; applying technical specialties in plants, labs and in the field; overseeing preventive maintenance; data quality management; and continuing regulatory compliance are sought after by both public and private water utilities. Moreover, 67 percent of manufacturing companies are currently experiencing a shortage of qualified workers. The data makes it clear ? private sector recruiting efforts will limit the availability of the talent pool for public utilities.

Nationally and locally, public utilities must be able to make the case to retain, train or hire the right people into those positions. A strong employee development and technical growth program creates purpose, motivation and long-term interest within organizations.

Establishing a Culture of Achievement

Orange County Utilities is using its ability to learn (as individuals and as an organization) as a competitive advantage in the skill market. Building on a foundation of experience, OCU is making its business culture achievement-focused, where technical and professional growth are encouraged and recognized. The utility is Anticipating, Acting and Acknowledging its way to a stronger and more unified workforce.

To begin organizing SWAP, Orange County Utilities made a purposeful effort to anticipate workforce changes. A SWAP Steering Team consisting of executive management was assembled. It solicited estimates of the future size and skill of the workforce through 2018. Retirement and expected attrition rates were also considered. Moreover, estimates of staffing levels, shifts, practices and training requirements are all part of what OCU captures from the institutional knowledge of departing staff, helping ensure SWAP as a means for successful succession planning.

In addition to the SWAP Steering Team, a cross-functional/multi-level Assessment Team was assembled. These teams acted to align SWAP to the strategic plan, preventing expensive and reactionary hiring in the medium term. They organized skill sets into progression paths for more efficient and verifiable certificate testing and training giving employee?s options to develop in (for example: Environmental Stewardship; Infrastructure Maintenance Services; Community Infrastructure Operations; Facilities Infrastructure Operations; Strategic Management; Business Systems; Stakeholder Care; and Planning and Logistics).

Perhaps most importantly, Orange County Utilities acknowledged the accomplishments and knowledge-retention efforts that accumulated value in the past. About eight years ago, OCU developed Plant Specialist and Field Specialist progression paths for trainee, level 1, level 2 and level 3. Each of these skill sets applied to operators in water and water reclamation facilities, and for field staff in collection and distribution. Those four levels became the basis for the comprehensive, Orange County Utilities? SWAP effort.

SWAP is skill based. Employees accumulate proficiency in specific skills, and in some cases, obtain higher-level licenses through a variety of accredited national and local programs (examples include the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Operator and Certification Program and the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operator?s Association Voluntary Field Technician Program).? Moreover, SWAP leverages leadership and employee development as a means for individuals to become aware of, and then take responsibility, for their own career growth in the water industry.

To fulfill its Strategic Plan, Orange County Utilities needed to build a knowledge-retaining and skill-based staff for the entire organization ? not just a few specialty areas. As the SWAP concept continues to develop, the requirements for advancing from one level to the next become more defined. Using four levels as the basis for the certification structure, advancement through the levels is based on specific verifiable metrics.

Looking Ahead

OCU began its employee development efforts approximately eight years, beginning with an innovative plant and field specialist rating process that continues today. The rapid expansion and regionalization that occurred in Orange County during the 1970s and 1980s caused the ranks of its workforce to grow rapidly. Today, retirement and changing technology are forcing changes in the approach to workforce development and growth. SWAP was developed to help Orange County Utilities fulfill its strategic plan by defining how employees can:

  • Develop expertise in basic skill areas necessary to improve within their current job;
  • Acquire skills required for growth along a progression path of related skills; and
  • Broaden skills across a range of specialty areas.

SWAP?s established progression paths for employees are a key step toward Orange County Utilities? strategic vision of One Utility United Through Excellence. Each progression path from entry-level trainees up to advanced positions reflects distinct types of skills necessary to fulfill the utility?s mission and divisional goals. The end result is an opportunity for willing and talented employees to lead Orange County Utilities to success.

Jacqueline Torbert is manager of the Utilities Water Division with Orange County Utilities in Orlando, Fla.

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