Cross-Training Provides Appeal

Training employees in a variety of roles can help smaller water utilities build efficiency and meet compliance challenges.

While several studies indicate that smaller rural water utilities have a harder time complying with safe drinking-water standards than larger urban utilities, an effective and relatively inexpensive solution might help those smaller utilities improve: cross-trained employees.

That’s the implication of a study funded by the Technical and Educational Council of the American Water Works Association. Cross-training not only allows smaller utilities to maintain high levels of technical knowledge in a field where technology is advancing rapidly, but it also gives them greater flexibility and resiliency, especially in terms of providing the capacity to handle extreme events and crises, the report notes.

“As with boxing, cross-training may help smaller utilities ‘punch above their weight,’” it states.

The study took about two years to complete. While it’s a few years old now, its findings remain valid, says David Switzer, a co-author and currently an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri. During the study, Switzer was working on his doctorate degree in political science with an emphasis on U.S. water policy at Texas A&M University.

“The challenges facing small rural utilities without access to a highly educated workforce and vibrant labor markets are much the same today as they were in 2016,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve solved the problem yet in any meaningful way.”

To perform the study, Switzer teamed up with Manuel Teodoro, an associate political science professor at Texas A&M, and Stuart Karasik, a retired workforce development consultant who now does employee training on a freelance basis.

Tale of two utilities

The two-part study first compiled statistical evidence that established a correlation between regulatory-compliance issues and smaller rural water utilities. Switzer says the team generally defined small utilities as those that serve fewer than 20,000 customers and employ roughly two dozen employees.

After that, the researchers found two very similar rural utilities with divergent compliance records, then took a closer look at possible reasons why one performed better than the other. That was accomplished by conducting numerous interviews with officials at both utilities.

“The utility with compliance issues was competently run, but it faced challenges almost any smaller rural utility faces,” Switzer says.

The two utilities were remarkably similar — an important factor in the study. They both are relatively small utilities in the same state; are located just 30 miles or so from each other; aren’t unionized; serve similar-size populations (15,000 and 10,000 customers, respectively) with similar socioeconomic demographics; employ almost the same number of people; and draw from comparable labor markets in terms of education. Moreover, they draw water from the same river.

“When doing comparative case studies, it’s important to find as many similarities as possible,” Switzer explains. “The main difference between these two utilities was that one was compliant with safe drinking-water standards and one had some compliance issues.”

Different training strategies

But as interviews continued, another key difference emerged: divergent approaches to employee training. While the utility with no compliance problems emphasized a culture of cross-training, the other relied on a more rigid system in which employees were assigned to various operational areas like treatment, distribution and wastewater.

Employees typically moved from one area to another only upon request, even though there were no formal barriers — legally or structurally — to prevent cross-training, the report points out.

“We had no idea that cross-training would be identified as a strategy that could help to explain the difference in regulatory compliance,” Switzer says. “During our interviews with people from across the organization, cross-training consistently emerged unprompted as a key management strategy. It’s part of the utility’s organizational culture — an expectation that everyone will have competencies in all elements of the organization.”

“Even office staff have some training in water and wastewater management,” he adds. “In fact, the utility’s manager actually came up through bookkeeping and accounting but holds licenses in water and wastewater treatment.”

The research also revealed that cross-training employees makes it easier to do even more cross-training, because when opportunities arise, the utility is equipped to cover the responsibilities of people who miss work to attend training sessions.

One caveat emerged as well; low turnover is a key requirement for effective cross-training. In addition, it can take several years for employees to get fully licensed through cross-training, the report notes.

On the other hand, cross-training is relatively inexpensive and resources are readily available. Switzer says that most state departments of health or natural resources offer training resources, as do the state chapters of the AWWA. The biggest obstacles are time and management commitment, he says.

No causality conclusions

The report declined to make any sweeping cause-and-effect relationship between cross-training and regulatory compliance. Furthermore, utility managers should check with their individual regulatory authorities before they deploy cross-training initiatives.

But there is no doubt that training all utility staff — from water and wastewater treatment operators to customer service representatives to front-office personnel — on all phases of utility operation provides smaller utilities in regions with limited human capital a degree of resilience and proficiency they otherwise couldn’t achieve, Switzer says.

Moreover, cross-training might also help organizations weather the so-called silver tsunami — the massive storm of retirements now sweeping across water utilities.

“It would be premature to make broad, industrywide management recommendations on the basis of this limited study,” the report states. “Nonetheless, the initial findings here suggest that cross-training might be a workforce and human-capital management strategy that is worth exploring.”

Or as Switzer puts it: “The results of this study don’t mean everyone should start cross-training. But it does merit further investigation to see if it can help smaller utilities overcome the workforce challenges they face.”


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