Certified Success

An employee certification program at Marietta Water leads to better morale, staff retention, and a more accountable and professional workforce
Certified Success
Marietta Water employees Brad Wheeling, left, and Hayeon Small study for a certification test.

Interested in Education/Training?

Get Education/Training articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Education/Training + Get Alerts

New employees at Marietta Water in Marietta, Ga., used to learn the ropes through informal on-the-job training that lacked accountability.

These days, they’re held to a much higher standard: pass a state certification test in water distribution or wastewater collection or lose their job. That approach has led to better morale, lower turnover and increased efficiency.

“We figured we could improve the stability of the workforce by developing a higher-qualified employee,” says Bob Snelson, department director for the past 10 years. “The certification requirement also gets our employees classified at higher levels with higher pay.

“My first two years here, we had a lot of turnover. But in the last four years, we’ve had maybe two people leave out of 42 total employees. I’ve also seen a marked improvement in employees’ self-esteem, and better camaraderie because of the shared level of achievement.”


Education partner

Marietta Water partners with Chattahoochee Technical College, which offers the courses whenever the department can supply a minimum number of students. When the program started in 2003, the school offered two wastewater collection and two water distribution courses per year; that has scaled back to one of each, as fewer people need to take the courses.

So far, 32 employees — 28 field operators, three supervisors and a superintendent — have earned at least one certification. The department supports dual certifications, too, and 17 people have earned them. “That really adds to their self-pride when they get two certifications under their belt,” Snelson says.

Snelson was the first to take one of the 10-week courses, just to see if they were worthwhile: they cost about $1,000. Employees get paid while they attend two 2-hour sessions a week, held at the end of the workday.

At first, students took a less-structured course at another institution. That, combined with a long wait to take the state certification test, meant only 20 to 30 percent passed. “It might have taken three months before they could take a test, so the retention of the material they learned was pretty low,” Snelson says.

Chattahoochee offers a more structured and rigorous curriculum and requires employees to take the test within one week of completing the classes. Those who fail the test the first time have to pay for a second test. To support students for the second exam, the department offers remedial training, based on a report that shows where they did poorly on the original test.


Benefits abound

Having certified employees gives the department more staffing flexibility. That’s important because, according to benchmarks established by the American Water Works Association, the city has a smaller-than-average workforce for its 25-square-mile area with 300 miles of water mains and 250 miles of sanitary sewers.

To illustrate flexibility, Snelson points to callback crew assignments. After-hours emergency calls can include a wide array of problems, but that’s less of an issue with many employees knowledgeable in multiple areas. And with a deeper pool of people available, there is less chance of fatigue and related safety issues.

“You don’t have to pick and choose employees for callback duty because they all have very similar training, and we’re not stretching limited manpower to cover a broader spectrum in time in responding to emergency situations,” Snelson says.

“Before, we had certain people who needed to be on call for larger amounts of time. Now we have more confidence that whoever we assign can respond to every emergency we encounter. They’re all competent in diagnosing a problem and directing a course of corrective action.”

Snelson can’t quantify cost-savings from the flexibility, but he does note that repairs generally get made faster because the people who respond are knowledgeable. “You’re not paying as much overtime as you otherwise might,” he says. In addition, more employees are eligible for overtime callback pay, and that boosts morale.


Less burnout

The program helps reduce burnout, too, because it’s easier to rotate people from job to job — sometimes annually. Sometimes people are switched to different jobs to enhance their skills, based on periodic supervisor reviews that determine who needs additional training in certain areas.

“Plus, it gives them a fresh look at what they’re doing day to day, and gives them the chance to work with new people,” Snelson says. “That builds camaraderie and emphasizes a team approach.”

There is one down side to the program: In a small workforce with minimal turnover, opportunities for advancement are limited. Therefore, the department is seeking city approval for a pay system that also rewards longevity.

Overall, employees have embraced the program. Snelson says that’s because they get a sense of achievement by succeeding at a higher level, and the certifications bolster their confidence and professionalism. Moreover, people appreciate an employer that cares about their careers.

“They see management making an investment in them, and they get to prove they can measure up to our expectations,” Snelson notes. “They’re brought onto a team with certain standards to uphold, and by reaching those standards, they’re supporting their fellow workers, and vice versa. Everyone is held accountable, and I believe people like to be held accountable.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.