September 2008, Vol. 20, No.9
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A Looming Crisis
Philly’s Old Answer to a New Problem
J. Douglas Brookhart
Just 1 month from now, Bill Smith will retire from his job at the wastewater treatment plant after 35 years of service. For the last 10 years, Bill has been the facility’s superintendent.
Bill was born in 1948 and is a baby boomer. He’s not alone. Between 1946 and 1964, about 79 million Americans were born, and now the first wave of this group has reached the age of 60 and is looking toward retirement. Last year, the oldest of the baby boomers began drawing their Social Security retirement benefits.
Bill graduated from high school in 1965 and went on to fulfill his parents’ dream of having their son graduate from college — the first in the family.
He served 2 years in the U.S. Navy — he spent time off the coast of Vietnam — and then returned home to find a career.
While Bill was in the service, the Nixon Administration established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the country celebrated its first Earth Day. In 1972, just as Bill returned home, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act.
Federal funds started flowing into communities to be used to build new sewer systems and treatment plants and fund major expansions of existing treatment works.
At his hometown wastewater treatment plant, Bill found a job that turned into a 35-year career. Now, Bill wonders how the time has passed so quickly.
During the last several years, Bill has tried to talk the city into succession planning and an assistant position to allow someone to learn his job, someone to take over when he retires. But due to budget cuts and the desire to do “more with less,” no one has been trained to replace him, and Bill will retire in a month.
One more thing: Bill Smith is fictional, but this story is more reality than fiction.
Nationwide, thousands are reaching retirement age, will retire, and will need someone to take over. However, in many cases, no shadowing programs or succession plans exist. This means a total loss of corporate knowledge. The real Bill Smiths will leave their jobs and take with them irreplaceable institutional knowledge.
The “brain drain” is coming, and few systems are prepared for the loss of so many trained and knowledgeable people in such a short time span. The water and wastewater industry is right in the middle of a nationwide mass exodus of skilled workers.
Add to this mix tight economic factors, increasingly stringent regulatory legislation, and previously unimagined security concerns stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the industry faces the possibility of meltdown if action is not taken.
To help avoid such a bleak future, this article and the one on p. 114 begin a series of articles that will provide ideas some communities have used to meet the challenge of the mass exodus of workers, as well as share the experts’ suggestions.
J. Douglas Brookhartis a senior operations specialist at Jones & Henry Engineers Ltd. (Toledo, Ohio).
Some Facts About the ‘Brain Drain’
- The oldest of 79 million baby boomers turned age 60 in 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- In the United States, someone turns 60 every 7 seconds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 25% of the working population will reach retirement age by 2010, resulting in a potential worker shortage of nearly 10 million.
- Within the next decade, the average water utility will lose 50% of its current employees, according to the American Water Works Association (Denver).
- Utilities are training full-time employees 20 hours per year, which is inadequate.
- The average tenure in the utility business is 24 years.
- A study of the electrical industry has determined that 80% of useful operational knowledge is tacit — knowledge understood but not documented.
- The retiring water and wastewater industry skilled personnel learned their trade on the job through hands-on training, seminars, workshops, and trade shows — a mix of actual experience and formal training that is difficult to duplicate today.
- Public works salaries from cities and governments are often 25% to 40% lower than similar positions in industry, making recruitment more difficult.
The trades-staffing crisis at the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) reached a peak in 2006. We had many unfilled trades positions, and nearly one-quarter of the department’s skilled-trades workers were eligible for immediate retirement.
We were victims of the industrywide shortage of trades workers resulting from baby boomer retirements and few new entrants to the profession. But PWD’s role as a municipal utility exacerbated this issue. As part of a civil service system, PWD employees must satisfy a residency requirement prior to coming to work for the department; this effectively closes the door on recruitment beyond the city’s borders. We also compete for candidates with the city’s many trade unions, whose salaries are more flexible and whose recruitment pool is broader.
As one of the largest water utilities in the United States — we have more than 2.5 million consumers — PWD is responsible for maintaining an infrastructure comprising more than 3000 mi (4800 km) of both water mains and sewers, numerous pumping stations and support facilities, and a combination of six water and three wastewater treatment plants. We knew we had to stanch the outflow of trades workers or face the regulatory consequences. In the face of this modern staffing crisis, we decided to implement an old-fashioned solution — apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships promised more success than the recruitment methods we had used in the past. The city’s high schools provided a captive audience for potential apprentices. We could address our staffing issues and provide employment opportunities for Philadelphia’s youth. Fortunately for us, the city had an organization that served as a bridge between employers and schools. This organization, Philadelphia Academies, provided us with the access we needed to reach our target audience.
Philadelphia Academies was established in 1969 as a single academy to build employment partnerships between city schools and area businesses. It later expanded to include new career areas, including trades. At a time when many schools are trending away from skilled trades in favor of academic studies, we were lucky to be able to tap into the Academies’ pipeline of talented students.
We recruited an initial group of 14 high school seniors. The apprentices were chosen based on such factors as grade-point average, attendance, and behavior. Because this coalition of employers and schools already existed, our work was made easier. We were able to concentrate on determining what trades to target and how the apprenticeships would work.
First, we enlisted the cooperation of PWD trades supervisors. The supervisors were committed to the idea of “growing their own,” despite the investment of time that would be required and the fact that the payoffs would not be immediate.
We also asked for and received support from the municipal union representing skilled trades workers. We knew the union’s buy-in was essential if we wanted the program to work. Not surprisingly, the union was eager to see the program succeed and to add new members. Both management and the union supported the idea of creating mentorships, which are instrumental in helping students make smooth transitions from high school to careers. Supervisors nominated employees to be mentors, and mentors received training to orient them to their new roles.
We started the students as part-time “preapprentice” interns during the last months of their senior high school year and as full-time interns during the summer. The internship provided students with a preview of the actual apprentice job. Students were placed under the mentorship of a master worker from whom they could learn by observing and by participating in tasks.
We anticipated that some interns would not go on with the apprenticeship program, but we were pleasantly surprised. All 14 of the original group became permanent employees (utility maintenance apprentices) in fall 2007.
Today, these apprentices continue their on-the-job training and receive supplemental classroom training. The combination of on-the-job mentoring and classroom instruction helps them understand how technical tasks relate specifically to theoretical knowledge.
The selection process and the network of support for the interns, apprentices, and mentors are the linchpins for the program’s success. Picking the right candidates and ensuring that they are supported throughout their apprenticeships are the keys to a successful program.
We are building on our successes by expanding the program to include other apprenticeship initiatives. We used a similar model to recruit students for our hard-to-fill water technology and construction technician jobs, as well as some other trades titles.
We have augmented our selection process to include behavioral interviewing, since our recruitment efforts netted us far more candidates than we had job slots. Twenty-five new students began their internships on April 21. Our hope is to so thoroughly institutionalize this program that it remains a viable source of trades workers for years to come.
Teresa Vollmer is general manager of Human Resources Administration at the Philadelphia Water Department.