Whether your water system is very small or very large, getting qualified certified operators—and keeping them—is critical to protecting your customers. Helping your certified operators identify and meet their career goals, while matching the needs of your water system, is what workforce development is all about.
Retirements and increasing vacancies in the number of qualified certified operators are challenging water utilities in getting and keeping knowledgeable and skilled certified operators. Investing in your existing staff and developing a solid workforce development plan is key to meeting the long-term staffing needs of your water system.
Do you have:
- A training plan for existing staff?
- A succession plan for existing staff?
- One or more properly certified back-up operators?
- Employee Development Plans (EDPs) and Individual Development Plans (IDPs)?
Employee Development Plan (EDP)
Recruiting, training, and integrating new water operators into your utility takes a lot of time and money. No matter if you have many water system operators running different segments of the utility or only employ two or three that run the whole system, you can save significantly by investing in your existing water system operators. Putting the time and effort into developing internal candidates to bridge the gap between current operators' skill sets and your water system's future needs provides great value to your water utility.
That is why it's important to develop and maintain Employee Development Plans (EDP) for each of your water system operators. The following five simple steps will help you get started.
Evaluate your water system's business goals. Align your operators' developmental needs with the business needs of your utility to make it easier to set goals and objectives for your employees. What are your long and short-term objectives? Are you planning a new treatment project or expanding your service area? Do you need knowledgeable leaders for these projects?
- Talk to your water operators. Don't assume you know your operators' current skills and career goals. Some of them may have career development goals in mind, but don't know how to start or whether management will support their goals. Other employees may not realize that you see potential in them, or they need encouragement to help them reach their goals.
Example. John is a utility technician and is conscientious about his work. He started out reading water meters the summer before he graduated high school and has moved into the utility's construction and maintenance side. He'd like to learn more about the SCADA system, but is reluctant to consider taking classes and working on the floor to gain the knowledge and water system operational experience to get his Waterworks operator certification. Your discussion with John may help him realize the importance of gaining his Waterworks certification so he can be trained on the SCADA system. It will help him understand how you and the utility can help him reach his goals.
Here is a Sample Individual Development Plan Template (Word) for a water system operator.
Potential versus readiness. There can be a world of difference between potential and readiness. Sue may have the potential to become a good water operator, but she may not be ready to take on an operating shift by herself. Readiness comes in many forms that encompasses desire, knowledge, skills, and experience. Sue may think she is ready to take on an operating shift, but she needs some time to gain the necessary experience to be fully certified as a shift operator. Sue may need a few more years of progressively more complex assignments in order to gain the knowledge and skills required of a lead shift operator.
Keep in mind that not every water system employee wants to become a water system operator, and good water system operators may not make good managers. Leaders often mistake thinking that someone who is great at their job should be able to manage other operators. Pushing an employee into a job they are not ready for, or have no desire for, can have devastating consequences.
Consider all types of training and development. Development programs don't have to be expensive and can take various forms. Don't mistake thinking that the only training your water system operators need is to meet professional growth requirements for their Waterworks operator certifications. Take time to evaluate the approved training list posted on the Washington Certification Services website to see if any of the training fits into your water system operators' EDP. Check their professional growth report annually (also available on the WCS website) to ensure they are meeting the Waterworks certification professional growth requirements.
Some other forms of development can help your operators meet both their goals and your water systems business needs, such as:
- Stretch assignments and special projects.
- Working directly with a subject matter expert (e.g., the technicians that installed the new instrument panel).
- One-on-one coaching and mentoring with an experienced certified operator (succession planning).
- Local network groups (the cross-connection control groups such as The Group or SRC4)
Create a before, during, and after plan. The Employee Development Plan you create for your water system operators needs to have specific goals and timelines for achieving those goals. S.M.A.R.T. goal principles are considered to be the most effective.
Specific- Write simply and define clearly what your goals are. These are the what, why, and how of S.M.A.R.T goals.
Example: Sue will complete the checklist of skills to meet Utility Worker 1 requirements for certification as a Water Distribution Manager 1 within 12* months of beginning employment.
*WDM1 requires 12 months of water system experience.
Measurable- Write measurable goals so that you have tangible evidence when the goal is completed. Usually, the entire goal statement is a project measurement, but there are usually several short-term or smaller measurements built into the goal.
Example: Sue's completion of the Utility Worker 1 checklist is one measurable objective. Passing her WDM1 exam will result in her completion certificate and Waterworks validation card, also a measurable objective.
Achievable- As noted in the example above, the timeframe for Sue to achieve her Waterworks WDM1 certification states “12 months.” WDM1 exam applications are not approved if the applicant does not have 12 months of experience on a water system. Sue needs to apply for the WDM-In Training 1 exam, which requires three months' water system experience or three relevant CEUs, or college credits. Sue will be qualified to upgrade her WDM-In Training 1 to the full certification after she documents 12 months of water system experience in her Waterworks upgrade application.
Relevant- Sue's goal of completing the Utility Worker 1 checklist and becoming a certified WDM1 operator meets the needs of the utility to have an operator with the necessary skills and experience, who can now assist with operational duties. Completion of these goals meets the utility's need for qualified and certified water system operators and moves Sue toward her long-term career goal of getting into water system management.
Timely- Ground your goals by setting a specific timeframe. Without deadlines and checkpoints, there is no sense of urgency. A timeframe also allows you to schedule check-ins to track progress.
Example: Sue's manager sets up quarterly check-ins. Their first check-in allows her to assist Sue in getting her WDM-In Training 1 certification application completed and sent into Operator Certification. She also checks on Sue's progress learning the skills listed on the Utility Worker 1 checklist. The manager arranges for Sue to meet with Joe, the water system floor supervisor, to complete Items 4 and 5 on the checklist.
Individual Development Plan (IDP)
An IDP is geared toward helping an employee (certified operator) determine how they want to advance their career. It can be used during the EDP process to help identify and align the employee's career goals with the needs of the water system.
The following documents are examples and blank templates that can serve as a starting point for your own workforce development efforts.
Operator In-Training to Water Technician – skills checklist (Word)
Employee Development Plan
EDP blank form template (Word)