New England’s manager boot camps
Several New England states are using manager “boot camps” to prepare front-line and midlevel operators for management positions. These programs are partnerships among the state water pollution control groups, the states, and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC; Lowell, Mass.), according to Charles Conway, NEIWPCC manager of training operations.
Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire have manager boot camps either in place or in development.
These programs provide training in the technical skills needed to run a plant, but more importantly, they seek to help operators develop the confidence and professional savvy to do such things as work with a town council, talk to reporters, and engage ratepayers directly, said Bill Patenaude, principal engineer in the Office of Water Resources at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Patenaude runs Rhode Island’s Operator’s Boot Camp: A Management Succession-Planning Program, which will complete its third year this fall.
“While it’s very important that we stress the technical skills they need, the new skills that we teach them aren’t out of a textbook,” Patenaude said. “They’re more the interaction, the networking, and the ability to communicate with audiences that they might not normally be comfortable with.”
“In one state in New England, 40% of the superintendents could have retired yesterday,” Conway said. These boot camp programs provide the opportunity for transition planning before the situation becomes desperate, he said.
All of the programs have been well received. Rhode Island has had about three dozen participants pass through its program in 3 years, Patenaude said. In Maine, 17 participants registered for the first year of Management Candidate School, which will conclude this fall, according to Tom Groves, director of wastewater and onsite programs for NEIWPCC. Groves added that drinking water operators have expressed an interest in joining the Maine program; so, for the upcoming second year, five of the 20 spots will be reserved for them, and the courses will be reworked to apply to both drinking water and wastewater treatment.
At press time, Massachusetts was accepting applications for its first year of the Massachusetts Wastewater Management Training Program, which will begin this fall, and New Hampshire was developing its program with a target start date of early 2011, Groves said.
Keep it simple
Patenaude said these boot camps should be as simple as possible. “It’s all about getting people together in a room and providing them with access to experts, both technical and regulatory, so that they know these people on a first-name basis and start building a personal network and seeing themselves as professionals and managers,” he said.
“A lot of consultants and organizations are going to try to come in and make very complex systems to deal with succession management, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” Patenaude said.
Additionally, NEIWPCC has worked to keep the boot camps inexpensive. The Maine and Massachusetts programs, which qualify for continuing education units, cost only $500 for a year of monthly courses, Groves said. (NEIWPCC is a congressionally recognized interstate agency that receives grant funding under the Clean Water Act to offer affordable wastewater training programs in New England and New York.)
“We always do a fall and spring training schedule that has 40 or 50 classes each semester as part of our core mission,” Groves said. Some of those classes align with the curriculum in the boot camp programs, and NEIWPCC is able to donate its services, he explained.
“We work with the states and the operator associations to provide the training that they need,” Conway said. “Over the last 6 or 7 years, the most needed training was for managers and new people getting into management.”
Boot camp courses are offered on such topics as basic engineering, process control, labor relations, dealing with unions, finance and budgeting, and lab maintenance and management. Some programs also include “job shadowing,” in which participants shadow host superintendents and managers for real-world supervision and process-control experience. The boot camp courses meet for 1 day each month for a year. Depending on the state and individual course, course length ranges from 4 to 6 hours each month. For example, the 2010–2011 Maine program is designed to provide candidates with 69 to 72 training contact hours.
“We look at a whole host of technical and not-so-technical issues that they’re going to need to really give them confidence, as opposed to being able to pass a Grade 4 exam,” Patenaude said.
Adapt as needed
Flexibility is another key to success.
After the current session, the Rhode Island program will take a hiatus, Patenaude said. “We’ve been through about three dozen individuals in the past 3 years, and we’re a small state with only 19 facilities,” he said. “We’ve gotten to most of those individuals who are on the verge of moving upwards.”
Now, Rhode Island plans to come up with a new format that will target younger employees and “get them on the track of understanding that they are in a profession,” Patenaude said.
In the absence of an existing program, utilities can band together to form one of their own. Groves pointed to the example of a group of communities from New York doing exactly that. “They’re very interested in keeping it low budget but trying to share the resources that they have,” he said.
“I hear people all the time say, ‘Well, I can’t do it that way,’” Patenaude said. “And my response is, ‘Well then, don’t do it that way, but do something.’”
Within any geographical area, there are a lot of subject matter experts willing to share their knowledge and provide free training because they care about the profession, he said.
While completing one of these programs does not guarantee a promotion or advancement, the motivation shown in seeking out this type of program and the training received helps make participants more desirable candidates.
So, have the programs created any new managers?
“We’ve seen a lot of people moving up,” Patenaude said. For example, two participants from Rhode Island’s first boot camp program are now superintendents, and another became the executive director of a sewer authority, he explained. The programs also can help young or inexperienced superintendents perform their duties better, Conway added.
Training and encouraging current employees to step up into management roles also benefit new hires just joining the industry, Patenaude said. The message becomes, “As we are providing for you, you now need to provide for them,” he said.
— Steve Spicer,
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