SUCCESSION STRATEGY 101:
Develop In-house Talent to Replace Retirees
By Charles W. Wulff, Jr.
SUCCESSION PLANNING REQUIRES a dynamic strategy for short- and long-term planning. It requires identifying key posi-tions,
defining the skill sets and specific institutional knowledge required for each position, and developing strategies and proce-dures
for recruiting quality replacements who can then be trained, qualified and certified in advance.
While the ideal is the continuous availabil-ity
of potential candidates who are appro-priately
trained and educated to select from,
too often succession planning focuses on
replacement strategies and neglects person-nel
resources already employed in an orga-nization.
However, utilities are well-served to
develop in-house programs to encourage and
nurture development of existing quality staff
members. These include providing financial
and other forms of resources, as well as moral
support to facilitate professional and personal
Before 1971, when California began re-quiring
mandatory water treatment operator
certification (distribution operator certifica-tion
became mandatory in 2001, the result of
1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments),
utilities were able to hire people off the street,
provide them with minimal training and place
them in positions where they were making
decisions that could affect water quality or
quantity, and therefore public health and safe-ty.
Although this provided a relatively inexpen-sive
labor pool to draw from, it de-emphasized
employee development and succession plan-ning.
And while the mandatory state certifica-tion
that is now the rule in both California and
Nevada has done much to guarantee a sound
trained and experienced workforce, it has also
resulted in some challenges.
Many utilities hesitate to invest in em-ployee
development out of concern that
employees may leverage their acquired skill
sets to market themselves for employment
elsewhere. Some utilities have exacerbated
this dilemma by actively cannibalizing staff
from other utilities, especially operators with
advanced certifications. This is not only inef-ficient,
but it also has had the effect of raising
costs as utilities compete against each other.
One way to combat the problem is to develop
an operator retention program that focuses
on components that encourage employee
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loyalty and help maintain long-term person-nel
stability. Examples include:
• Perform cyclical, and accurate, compa-rable
salary evaluations to ensure your
utility is providing adequate, reasonable,
and competitive compensation packag-es
that will attract and retain quality per-sonnel.
This should also include benefit
• Prioritize and budget dedicated resourc-es
to promote professional and leader-ship
development. These can include
continuing education, membership and
participation in professional organiza-tions
such as AWWA, participation in
professional conferences and events,
and encouraging various forms of net-working
between utility staff depart-ments
and other personnel.
• Initiate and facilitate employee incentive
programs, not only to encourage proac-tive
participation of operators in their
professional development, but also as a
means of increasing morale.
Small water utilities, typically Grade 1 or
2 systems, where shift operators are only
required to be certified as T1 operators and
operators in charge, T2, often have difficulty
attracting and retaining even entry-level op-erators.
Strategies for dealing with this situa-tion
are similar to those for promoting from
within, including competitive compensation
packages coupled with employee incentive
programs such as continuing education. In
larger California utilities the bottleneck is the
hiring and retention of advanced certified
operators, T3-5. This has been created in part
by state certification rules that require an op-erator
to have at least one year of operating
experience in the appropriately classified sys-tem
or facility for advanced certification. For
T2 operators working at a Grade 3 facility, it
can be difficult qualifying his or her experi-ence
because the State Water Resources Con-trol
Board (SWRCB) doesn’t credit experience
that isn’t specific to that of the daily shift op-erator
of a treatment plant or distribution sys-tem.
Typically, little or no credit is given to T2
operators whose job includes such non-shift
activities as maintenance. This is despite the
fact that a case could be made that mainte-nance
experience strengthens an applicant’s
knowledge and understanding of how treat-ment
and distribution systems operate. Un-til
a solution is found for better qualifying
non-shift operator duties, one option utilities
can consider is securing an operator variance
from their SWRCB regulatory oversight dis-trict
engineer that would allow a T2 certificate
holder to operate a Grade 3 system.
For utilities where employee development
is a priority, cross training is an effective strat-egy.
One utility, for example, developed a sys-tem
that mimicked professional baseball. The
five shift operators (minimum T3 certifica-tion)
were considered the major leagues, and
two operator trainee positions, which were
always kept filled (minimum T2 certification),
were the minors—AAA ball. It was a win-win
for both the trainees and the utility, which
had two extra operators on staff to help out
with shift duties and be available for mainte-nance,
laboratory, sampling, and other duties
as necessary. And the cross training made for
more comprehensively trained operators to
tap when an in-house vacancy occurred.
Ultimately, water utilities must attract and
retain the finest and most qualified opera-tors.
Assuring customers and the public at
large that they have optimized all the means
available to them to secure high-quality op-erations
personnel will continue to be an
ongoing challenge that requires a long-term
commitment to creativity and endurance. S