Succession Planning Leads to Utility University

ARTICLE | Aug 18, 2016

We didn’t set out to be innovative. We just wanted to solve a problem – how to preserve and enhance organizational knowledge through succession planning. 

To do so, we created Utilities University.  

The Utilities Department has nearly 800 employees who help provide water, wastewater and solid waste collection services.  The department maintains a AAA bond rating with Standard & Poor’s, and the American Water Works Association awarded us best-tasting water in North America in 2007 and 2013. We wondered how to sustain and build on these achievements when we face losing nearly 40% our most knowledgeable, experienced employees through pending retirements.     

During our strategic business planning process in 2008, we recognized that if not addressed, the increasing number of retirements and difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified employees could impair our ability to maintain and improve services.  Historically, we had not had any formalized leadership program, but we knew it was time to begin planning for the “gray tsunami.”   

We created a goal: to develop a workforce succession plan that identifies career progressions and training requirements by 2012.   The succession plan was created in 2009, but implementing the training portion took three more years. 

Our goal was to broaden existing employees’ workplace skills and expand the pool of candidates for leadership positions.

Succession Planning Process

Our succession plan is based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Water Sector Competency Model. It identifies occupational and industry competencies essential for successful performance in the water sector and focuses on:  personal effectiveness, academics, workplace skills, industry-wide, technical, and water sector technical competencies, among others.  We surveyed our managers and used the data in their responses to develop training strategies.  Our succession plan process:  

1. Identify key leadership positions in the department

2. Prioritize competencies, skills and success factors of leadership

3. Inventory current staff strength

4. Evaluate data

5. Design career development strategies to address skill gaps

6. Implement training

Development of Utilities University

UU derived from the Utilities Department succession planning process to deliver training specifically designed for our employees.  The innovative three-year program offers a mix of traditional instructor-led classes taught by local career tech instructors; Utilities-specific classes taught by our own subject-matter experts, directed studies or intern assignments and industry-specific online courses provided by the American Water Works Association, Water Environment Federation and Solid Waste Association of North America.  A professional services agreement with our local career tech provides a large portion of our UU training.  

After a summer of marketing the program, Utilities University opened in the fall of 2012 to all full-time employees -- entry, mid and upper-level managers and general employees represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The voluntary program gives employees an on-the-job opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills needed to compete for key leadership positions or enhance their current job skills. 

Admittance requirements are:

1. Completion of confidential work skills assessment

2. Good standing as an employee (competent performance evaluation rating with no active discipline)

3. Creation of an Individual Development Plan to establish career goals and develop a plan to achieve goals that benefit the employee and the department.

About 250 employees have participated in the program since 2012.  Some attended occasional classes. Others were fully committed to the program.  The first class of 38 graduated in January 2015. New classes begin each fall.  Initially, classes were held near our downtown offices, but transitioned to our local career tech campus where convenient parking is plentiful.   

Challenges – The most difficult challenge of implementing a multi-level program like UU was ramping up and sequencing courses.  Our local career tech enhanced their standard curriculum to ensure identified skills gaps were addressed.  Other non-standardized courses were developed by the Utilities staff.  Many classes were still in development as classes began in 2012, but all were delivered on time.  

Initially, finding the right mix of instructors was challenging.  With time and experience, our instructors now know our business and our employee culture and have developed a wonderful rapport with students.  Instructors possess an impressive mix of education and business credentials. Our employees benefit from their insights and mentoring.

Unforeseen Benefits – UU had a positive impact on our workplace culture. UU brought together employees at all levels with varied backgrounds and skill sets and from disparate places (field, office, technical, non-technical).  They all learn from each other and contribute to discussions on how our department can be better and how our processes can be improved.  It’s a great moment when an engineer gets to know a utility worker or plant operator in a UU class and learns how his design actually works in the field. Those knowledgeable end-users provide valuable input for the next design.  

UU encourages networking, teamwork and collaboration. Our department is better for it.  UU is empowering employees to make positive organizational changes. Employees are putting to use the skills gained from courses such as proposal writing, business leadership, quality control and continuous improvement, project management, interpersonal communications and more.

It is difficult to quantify whether an employee’s success is directly attributed to participation in UU.  If you ask UU students most would agree the skills they learned in UU gives them an edge over those who have not participated.  UU students display more confidence during promotional processes. The courses they took in UU have broadened their understanding of the department and industry. Mock job interviews helped them be more comfortable in an interview process. Since 2012, 20 UU students have received promotions inside and outside the Utilities Department. Two of our newest division managers are UU students.

“I’m proud of my department for creating this program, said Lisa Hubbell, a 2015 graduate.  “Knowing our leaders are committed to investing in our workforce is very motivating. A coworker suggested that UU is changing the culture of our organization and providing hope for employees. I couldn’t agree more.”

What other students are saying about UU:

“Attending UU has really impacted my life -- professionally and personally. Before learning 100% - Zero, it was easy to say, ‘so and so did it’ never taking accountability for my actions. One day, I noticed my son was picking up that habit and I explained 100% - Zero. He now tells me every day that he did a good job at school and was 100% accountable for his actions with no excuses.”

“The Professionalism in the Workplace” class has helped me avoid negative conversations among coworkers. I don’t find myself engaging in gossip. If I make a mistake, I stay positive and try to correct it rather than make excuses.”

“Taking UU classes has given me the push I needed to pursue higher education. I plan to obtain an associate’s degree in management with a business option.”   Note: Some local private colleges are now crediting UU students’ coursework towards completion of degree programs.

“Before these classes started, I knew that I had some improving to do as a manager. I was not sure how to start or even if I could change the way I was doing things. As classes progressed I learned that there is a lot I could do easily without huge changes.”

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