Standing Taller

A city and its union reach a compromise that supports training and certification, giving wastewater employees more stature and the utility more work flexibility

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Outdated job classifications and training requirements work like an anchor on efficiency — something municipalities can’t afford when pressed to do more with less. Wastewater officials in Marietta, Ohio, developed a solution: Work with union officials to reclassify certain employees and increase workplace flexibility, and motivate workers to become state-certified technicians.

Wastewater department officials worked out an agreement about two years ago with Teamsters Union Local 637 that changed the job title of wastewater tappers to wastewater service technicians, allowing them to work both in the wastewater plant and in the collection system, says Steve Elliott, wastewater superintendent.


Changing times

During earlier decades, as the city and sewer system grew rapidly, new sewer taps kept tappers busy fulfilling their job descriptions. But when growth slowed, so did demand for sewer taps. At the same time, as the treatment plant aged, it needed more maintenance personnel.

So Elliott approached the union with a proposal: Change the tapper positions to a new job description with a wider range of responsibilities. “As time went on, the tapper job description became antiquated,” Elliott says. “We wanted to update the position and allow ourselves more flexibility.”

The department also wanted a new requirement for the position: mandatory state certification in wastewater. But like the job-title change, the training and certification required union approval. “We wanted to increase professionalism by requiring certification for the new position,” Elliott says. “We wanted them certified within three years, or transferred to another job that did not require certification.”


Source of pride

“Certification creates a more professional attitude and more employee pride,” Elliott adds. “And the training course to pass the certification test is a good way to break in new employees.” Elliott also believed training and certification would help the utility fight “brain drain.” The workforce is getting older, and when people retire, he prefers to fill openings from within.

“If, for example, a foreman retires and an employee wants to move up and take his place, it would require a Class II certification,” Elliott says. “But you need a Class I certification before you can get a Class II. So certification would help prepare folks for advancement — put the carrot out there.”

There’s another good reason to have certified employees: The state Environmental Protection Agency looks more favorably on a certified workforce. “Regulatory agencies like certification,” he says. “The more certified operators you have, the more confident they feel about your operation.”


Compromise was key

Union officials were not opposed to training or certification; they just didn’t want them to be mandatory. Eventually, the sides compromised. The city relaxed its stance on mandatory certification, and the union agreed that employees in the new position should at least pass the certification-training course within two years.

In addition, employees must pay the up-front $550 training-course fee, which the city reimburses upon successful completion.

Then the union leaders went one step farther and made another proposal: Give the new certified employees a 30-cents-an-hour pay raise if they pass the certification exam. They also suggested that employees pay the nominal fee for taking the exam, which the city would reimburse if the employee passed. The compromise allowed the union to sidestep the mandatory certification, yet still provide a strong incentive for employees to get certified, Elliott says.

“As long as we didn’t lose any members in the deal, and nobody lost any work time, we were all for it,” says John Sheriff, union secretary/treasurer. “We just felt that if certification makes an employee more valuable, it should be reflected in their pay. And with the city paying for the training, it was a win-win situation.”

Elliott observes, “It was frustrating at times, but in the end, everyone was happy. The bottom line is we wanted to work with them and they wanted to work with us. The new requirement gives employees more job security, because trained employees are more likely to keep their jobs. The city gets better-trained employees who have more pride and professionalism.”


Professionalism matters

One of the newly classified employees has already passed both the training course and the certification exam, and another is about to start the training classes. And there has been a ripple effect: More employees in lower-level jobs are talking about certification. “Certification gives them a better attitude — they just act more professional,” Elliott says. “They’re like teenagers who get their driver’s license. They stand a little taller. It improves their outlook and their sense of self-worth. In the past, if we had a problem, they’d figure it out and fix it. Now when they find a problem, they ask what caused it and try to determine what’s going on down the line. They’re more inquisitive and interested in problem-solving.”

The bottom line, Elliott says, is that in this age of tight budgets, unions and management need to work together. Organizations that provide more opportunities for education, training and certification build more stability and make people more employable — a state certification allows them to work in any plant in Ohio.

“This is just our first step — we may come up with other steps later,” he says. “It’s imperative to step back and look at things and come up with ways to increase efficiency. You have to do that to survive in the 21st century. People fear change, but at this point, it’s necessary. You can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, or you keep getting what you’ve been getting.”


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