April 2009, Vol. 21, No.4

Succession Planning

Maintaining the Maintenance Department

Dale E. Kocarek and Mark J. Livengood

To date, most discussions on succession planning in our industry have focused on the loss of certified operators who have worked their way up to become plant managers, superintendents, and shift supervisors. Less is generally said about the maintenance personnel who work behind the scenes to keep our collection and treatment systems in good working order. These men and women enable our asset management systems to live up to their full potential by ensuring that assets operate to their fullest extent and provide maximum value to the public.

Even as maintenance staffs dwindle and the attention paid to their retention and replacement lags, their roles are becoming more important. Consider the following points.

Public expectation for maintenance professionals has never been higher. This comes at the same time as environmental regulations continue to grow stricter and tolerance for the occasional overflow, upset, or Notice of Violation is reduced.

Money for larger, better, and more reliable capital improvements is limited. The days of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency construction grants are past. As a result, utility service providers must continue to operate aging critical infrastructure for longer periods and provide the excellent level of service the public and regulators have come to expect.

Asset management systems developed by managers and consulting engineers for the purpose of maintenance management and long-term planning are based on assumptions that a reasonable maintenance effort will be undertaken and the maximum value of the asset will be extracted before it is retired.

The old status quo of permitting redundancy in organizations by retaining personnel with marginal competence is becoming less acceptable at a time when open positions are being eliminated or frozen. If a utility has a limited number of positions, it is imperative that each member is the best possible. Unfortunately, some utilities still adhere to the old process of transferring someone from street department maintenance to wastewater treatment plant maintenance. Those personnel typically have minimal knowledge of the equipment in complex water and wastewater treatment plants. This leads to steep learning curves for the maintenance operator and extra work for his or her supervisor for several years. Public officials who don’t understand the demographic trends of our industry and see no need to change these hiring practices can exacerbate the situation.

Treatment systems are growing more complex and require a higher skill set from the operator and maintenance worker. Such instrumentation as programmable logic controllers and supervisory control and data acquisition systems are commonplace. Operations and maintenance personnel must be computer-literate, have experience with many mechanical repairs, and have at least a working knowledge of basic instrumentation and controls in order to be versatile to an organization.

Finally, with the “brain drain” beginning to intensify, it is important that managers and elected officials recognize the full value of our important infrastructure and understand two important points:

Hiring and developing quality in-house maintenance personnel can save money by reducing contract maintenance costs, environmental violations, lawsuits, property damage claims, and cascading equipment failures due to untimely actions.

Our utility workers must be viewed with the same degree of admiration and respect afforded others in the public health field. Next to the development of the bacteria-fighting drugs of the 1930s and 1940s, advances in the collection and treatment of wastewater have contributed the most directly to the betterment of the human condition in the last century.

Investment in our infrastructure and in the recruiting, training, and development of operations and maintenance personnel must be part of our continuing legacy to future generations.

From the Field Timing Differences The thought of retirement hadn’t entered my mind until a few years ago, when a friend decided to retire at the age of 51 from his position as an administrator of a small water and wastewater authority. He already had put in 33 years of service. The news of my friend’s retirement came as a shock — I thought he was too young to retire. However, it soon became apparent that retirements of this nature were not random occurrences but happening with increasing frequency. Since then, I have witnessed many conversations where plant managers, superintendents, and operators indicate they soon will be leaving the utilities field. By contrast, most consulting engineers who range in age from their mid-40s through late 50s are in the middle of their careers and have the mindset that they have many years potentially left to grow in experience and continue their learning process. — Dale E. Kocarek

Dale E. Kocarek is a project manager for Stantec Consulting Inc. (Columbus, Ohio), and Mark J. Livengood is the water reclamation services superintendent at Montgomery County (Ohio) Water Services.

Do you have an observation or personal experience you’d like to share? Send your thoughts to sspicer@wef.org, and we’ll print them in a future issue.