Lee County, Fla., is located about 90 mi (145 km) south of Tampa, Fla. Lee County Utilities (LCU; Fort Meyers) owns and operates eight wastewater treatment plants ranging in capacity from 0.025 to 6 mgd (95 to 23,000 m3/d) and employs 39 operations and laboratory personnel.
Understanding that the wastewater plants’ successful and compliant operations depend solely on a fully trained and qualified operations team, LCU management decided to conduct a survey of current team members to identify and quantify retirement probabilities. We initially believed that many of our operators would be eligible for retirement in 5 to 10 years but discovered that we had a little more breathing room. The majority of our staff would be eligible to retire in 11 to 20 years.
However, in Florida, a trainee can only be a licensed and certified operator after working 2080 hours in the field and successfully passing the state exam. This equates to paying a year’s salary before a new operator can be placed to meet permitted staffing requirements.
Even though LCU does not seem to be in immediate danger of losing the bulk of its operations team in the near future, we recognized the need to act now to minimize the future impact of losing operators. We also developed a plan to capture the knowledge and expertise of experienced team members when they retire or leave the organization.
The establishment and maintenance of an operator trainee program will allow for adequate coaching, mentoring, and advancement of staff members and will provide both LCU and the industry with future lead operators and managers.
We took into account the eventuality of operators retiring and natural attrition, as well as increased needs due to plant expansions, and filled five trainee positions. While this action did not change the number of operators retiring in the 16- to 20-year range, it added to the pool of operations staff. Now, as team members retire or leave the organization, a trainee can be brought on board to fill the position without causing an operator shortage.
By the time operators retire, the trainees will go from being “newbies” to seasoned veterans at the facilities they know best. This strengthens LCU’s versatility and depth in maintaining qualified personnel, as opposed to trying to attract potential candidates from other utilities that are struggling with the same issue.
An additional benefit to having an extra operator or two is the resulting decrease in overtime spent when trying to cover vacation and sick time accumulated by veteran operators. Extra hands also help spread the work and minimize overtime while operators are offsite obtaining required continuing education units for certification renewals.
Training Methods and Communication Tools
Training is the key to turning new, inexperienced trainees into operations specialists. LCU developed a training program that offers more than 70 hours of in-house training administered by peers and management. This grass-roots training is over and above the mandated correspondence course and required 2080 hours of on-the-job training. LCU also sends the trainees to training courses offered by the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association (Palm Beach Gardens) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Putting this plan into place has resulted in all five new trainees passing the examination on the first attempt. With certifications in hand and the basic training behind them, the newly licensed operators are continually involved in day-to-day decision-making processes.
As part of the training process and normal operational protocol, LCU uses several reports to maintain the operator’s engagement with the operations and compliance of the facilities. For example, LCU requires that operators fill out the In-House DEP Inspection Form on a monthly basis. The report rates the status — satisfactory, marginal, or unsatisfactory — of several components of each plant process. This report reinforces compliance in the minds of the team members while giving management a picture of current plant status.
A second communication and training tool is the Process Control Management Plan (PCMP) that is in place for every plant. The PCMP includes operational ranges and benchmarks for plant variables that are vital for ensuring that proper plant operations and parameters are maintained. This plan also documents operator meetings where operational strategy is discussed among team members and lead operators.
The monthly PCMP report includes operational data, such as solids wasting rates, solids retention times, food-to-microorganism ratio nutrient information, and many other relevant plant parameters. The information is gathered, graphed, and displayed to show the staff the cause and effect of operational decisions.
In addition to the aforementioned reports, a communication status board is centrally located where everyone can observe and understand key operational indicators, such as the status of equipment and processes, and any special instructions for the day. This status board also serves as a regular communications device among shift operations staff.
Cross-training also is encouraged and accomplished by having the operators work with maintenance staff to assist with preventive and corrective maintenance. For example, a valve exercising program has been initiated. All pipes and valves are marked, their function identified, and a turning schedule developed. This program keeps valves operational while keeping the staff knowledgeable about valve location and function.
Along with developing a formalized training program, LCU also identified the need to retain staff. With all the time and effort put into these programs, LCU did not want to be an operators’ training ground for surrounding utilities to take advantage of.
Operators and other utilities staff members keep informed about the salary and benefits being offered by surrounding utilities. To be proactive and protect LCU’s investment, the utility developed a policy that allowed for competitive salary increases to keep the team satisfied financially. This evaluation was accomplished by reviewing advertisements for operators in professional publications and comparative position compensation and benefits surveys of like-sized utilities within the region.
A main focal point of LCU’s retention program was to create and maintain an excellent work environment that incorporates teamwork, staff involvement, and open communications with management. For the last several years, these philosophies and practices have worked, LCU facilities have been recognized by the Florida Water Environment Association and Florida DEP, as well as the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association, for excellence in operations, maintenance, and safety.
To give credit where credit is due, these awards are publicly recognized by the Board of County Commissioners, and a cash bonus is provided to the winning team members. One of the many reasons for these successes is the team involvement and encouragement of all staff members to take part in daily operational decisions, capital and operational improvements, and involvement with review and input for plant expansion or upgrade.
LCU also attempts to accommodate reasonable requests while maintaining the needs of the organization. For example, LCU facilities are spread out across the county, so the utility attempts to place operators at facilities as close to their homes as possible to reduce fuel costs and travel time.
LCU also strives to identify an individual’s strengths and attempts to challenge team members’ abilities by assigning them tasks that utilize their unique strengths. Individual weaknesses are addressed and overcome through selective training, coaching, and mentoring.
The success of the LCU organization is directly related to the empowerment, involvement, interaction, and development of an excellent teamwork approach throughout all department levels and disciplines.
Florida may be experiencing an operator shortage, but there has never been a shortage of trainees. Last year, one trainee position received more than 230 applications. While it might not be the best time to request additional staff, bringing aboard trainees before retirement and attrition drain your work force can help maintain a quality staff that is trained, certified, motivated, and able to be promoted to prevent a major loss of knowledge.
Time and unforeseen circumstances befall us all, and the loss of key operations staff can cripple an organization. Utilities nationwide spend millions of dollars on master planning, asset management, capital improvement, and building necessary infrastructure to accommodate growth; the question that cannot be ignored is why not invest in one of the most important aspects of sustaining a utility’s future, the people who keep it running?