March 2009, Vol. 21, No.3

Succession Planning

Recruitment Tours

Tailoring plant tours to attract new hires

Peter LaMontagne

You just can’t get good help” is an ageless lament that in part reflects poor recruitment programs. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (Upper Marlboro, Md.) reports on its Web site that “each decade, 30 million American children enter high school but only 6 million of them ever receive a college degree. The remaining 24 million either drop out; complete high school and enter the workforce; or attend a community college or university for a couple of years.”

These young people are the pool from which the wastewater industry can draw, and the perfect time to reach them is during plant tours. Tours and recruitment go hand in hand.

What better time to talk to young people about joining your organization than when they are already focusing on your plant?

For high school students, a tour is a good opportunity to make a connection between the plant equipment, the processes they are viewing, and the jobs of operating and maintaining the plant.

More-Effective Tours
A typical 2-hour tour greatly limits what you can convey, especially as only two or three students will be interested in any one work area. Most tours consist of a brief conference room overview, a walk through the plant, an attempt to overcome the “yuck factor,” and an explanation of the process. A typical 2-hour tour does not include enough time to show students what work is done on a daily basis, nor does it offer the time to talk to the operators who are doing the work.

On a half-day tour, however, the orientation period could be devoted to discussing opportunities, wages, benefits, and career paths. Afterward, students could choose to visit two or three stations in various parts of the plant. Each station would provide an overview of the work done in that area. The maintenance shop, operations control room, and laboratory all would make good stations.

Also, keep in mind that it may take a bit of coaching to raise the comfort level of the staff members in these areas to host a station. Discuss with your staff what sort of information might be appropriate, and remind them that listening to the questions asked is as important as telling what they have to share.

Staff manning the stations can talk about the educational background of plant personnel and available career opportunities. At the maintenance shop, for example, staff can explain what it’s like to take apart and repair 10,000-lb (4500-kg) centrifuges. Electricians can talk about programming drives, controls, and power distribution equipment.

Also, rather than wait for vocational or technical high schools to call you to set up a tour, call them. You might even want to consider a career day at the plant.

Whichever path you take, don’t expect results right away. Most schools have curricula, including field trips, planned and budgeted a year or more in advance, so look at this type of outreach as a long-term plan.

Good Prospects?
Once you have the students at the plant, the next challenge is to identify which students are best suited for working at a plant. To really find out what your plant needs, ask the operations and maintenance supervisors.

John Timkey, plant superintendent at the Niagara Falls, N.Y., wastewater treatment plant, said operators “need to be curious, engaged, and prepared to learn. As to education, here, everybody has 1 year to pass at least the first level in the licensing exams.”

Timkey added that math seems to be a stumbling block for new hires. “We need them to be reasonably good at basic algebra,” he said.

“If they have mechanical aptitude [and] are interested in science, so much the better,” Timkey said. “Other than that, it’s negotiable.”

Timkey added that it’s nice if applicants are well-spoken, and it is helpful if they did well in school, but lack of either trait is not a deal-killer.

“What we have to offer is a job that’s more than a job, it’s a living,” Timkey said. “You won’t get rich at it, but it’s interesting, challenging, and you can earn enough to raise a family and educate your kids.”

Mike Lindsay, maintenance mechanic at the King County, Wash., South Plant described what makes a good maintenance staff person: “They are often the kids who don’t do well in school,” he said. “They may be able to fix their own bicycle and build a quarter-tube for a driveway skateboard park, but sitting for hours in school is not what they are good at.”

“A good maintenance person thinks with their hands and learns through doing,” Lindsay added. “After a while, they can marshal skills developed on all sorts of equipment to successfully fix something they’ve never seen before.”

These descriptions are geared specifically toward new entrants to the work force. Somewhat older prospects have full-time work experience, and in this group, applicants who have had physical jobs — construction, industrial experience, military service — are good prospects.

When interviewing newcomers to the work force, many plants look for applicants with an interest in how things work. Plants seek those who work on cars, bicycles, and lawn mowers; these job skills, even as hobbies, give an insight to their talents and what they enjoy doing.

If you find someone with these aptitudes, coupled with the brains to go to college, you may have found a winner. Part-time work experience is important, because it can reveal what the applicant liked and disliked about previous jobs and add insight  into how he or she likely would fit in at the plant.

High School Interns
With the students visiting the plant and prospects for new hires growing, an internship program can help bridge the gap between education and work.


Mark Ogren, reclamation plant manager at Provo City’s Water Reclamation Facility in Utah, brings on unpaid interns from a local college from time to time. He pairs an intern with an employee and has found that the time spent training and explaining is comfortably balanced by the work that gets done, making it a win–win situation. However, most of the jobs at his and other plants require a high school diploma, and the pay scales at the plant are not generally attractive to college graduates.
The Main Selling Points
  • College diploma not required
  • Interesting, varied work
  • Often a vocation, not simply a job
  • Positions for all ability levels
  • Certification requirements make for a meritocracy
  • Stable employment, usually a living wage
  • Good benefits
  • Portable skills
  • Employer-paid vocational training
  • College tuition assistance
Internships with high-school-age students may very well pay a better return. Many high schools support 1- or 2-day per week (usually unpaid) internships for seniors. This gives the students some real work exposure in fields they may be considering.

Lindsay said he thinks this works well but cautioned that a utility's lawyers can spend months thinking up forms to have the intern sign. So even if management thinks it’s a good idea and pushes it forward, it takes quite awhile to get the paperwork straightened out.

One way to shorten this process is to ask schools to provide copies of sample contracts, releases, and related materials from other organizations that have hosted interns. Your utility’s lawyers then can use these documents as a basis for your situation.

A strong tour program can serve double duty as an effective public outreach, as well as a strong recruitment tool.

©2009 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved. 

Peter LaMontagne is a consulting engineer for