Succession Planning Is a Marathon

Gender-diversity program slowly gains traction at Southern California water utility.

Succession Planning Is a Marathon

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The issue of succession planning in the face of fast-retiring older workers continues to vex water and sewer utilities nationwide. But the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is parlaying the so-called silver tsunami of exiting baby boomers into an opportunity to make inroads in another problem area: gender diversity.

In particular, the Los Angeles-based utility, which provides water for nearly 19 million people living in Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties, has focused on its Engineering Services Group. By changing how it recruits women engineers and establishing strategic retention programs, the percentage of female engineers in the group more than doubled to 27% (out of 142 engineers) in 2019, up from 13% in 2006, says Diane Pitman, human resources manager for the district.

“We’re pleased with those numbers,” she says. “They may not seem dramatic from a percentage standpoint, but we only hire five to 12 entry-level engineers a year. We look at this as a marathon, not a sprint.”

Increasing gender diversity at the district, where only about 25% of the utility’s roughly 1,750 employees are women, isn’t easy. Almost 500 of the utility’s employees work in skilled trade-related positions — areas where it’s difficult to find suitable female job candidates. And 98% of those 500 workers are men, she notes.

“We do the most hiring in that area (for skilled craft and trade workers), so it’s difficult to impact the percentage of females,” she points out. “Water utilities have been male-dominated for a long time, so it’s harder to increase the percentage numbers (of women).”

Furthermore, the utility competes against private sector engineering firms that can offer better pay and higher-profile projects. “Everyone is fighting for the same few women engineers,” she says.

On the other hand, the wave of retirements poses a unique opportunity to reshape the face of the engineering group, Pitman says. From 2012-18, 110 employees retired, which is about 3% a year; many of them were hired in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the district initiated several new capital improvement programs.

“It definitely presents an opportunity to address issues such as diversity,” Pitman says. “Our general manager likes to talk about the fact that he’s always seeing new faces in the cafeteria because we’re hiring people as fast as they retire. And that’s changing our culture in a positive way.”

Hiring practices, internships

The focus on gender diversity gained momentum about 10 years ago when utility officials noted that the percentage of female engineers at the utility didn’t proportionately mirror the national percentage of engineering degrees earned each year by females. In 2018, that figure was about 21%, according to a report compiled by the American Society for Engineering Education.

A review of the situation revealed a primary obstacle: the utility’s hiring practices for engineers, which centered on hiring more senior- or principal-level engineers.

“There are more females graduating with engineering degrees, but not at that level,” Pitman notes. “So to impact the numbers, we realized we needed to hire more at the lower levels, because that’s where you can find more qualified, degreed females who are ready to enter the workforce.”

Of course, the utility needed to ensure that entry-level positions would be available for graduating females; this was accomplished by striving to create five to 12 openings a year through retirements. “We took a risk that we might hire a few extra people, but on the other hand, they’d be trained and ready to go, which would save us time later,” Pitman says.

Furthermore, to boost the utility’s profile among college students, the district offers an internship program for juniors and seniors at about a half dozen local colleges and universities. About 15 students a year participate in the internships, which began in 2002.

Students earn credits while they work 20 hours a week for the utility. So far, about 200 students have participated in internships. Of those, the district hired seven. Five of them were women.

“The internships give them an opportunity to learn about our systems and then spread the word about what it’s like to work here,” Pitman explains. “Word-of-mouth is a great recruiting tool.”

Support programs are key

Keeping female engineers on board also poses challenges. To increase retention of both female engineers and those in nonengineering positions, the utility formed two support/networking groups that include mentoring components: the Metropolitan Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and the Women at Metropolitan.

“Once we get them in the door, we have to work hard to keep them, and those groups help us do that,” Pitman says. “They provide a support system and encouragement, plus they see women succeeding in nontraditional roles, such as managers.”

In addition, the district strives to provide new employees with a big-picture perspective that ensures they understand the utility’s important mission, as well as its history, says Rebecca Kimitch, press office manager.

“We give them a sense of the value of what they’re doing and the importance of bringing water to Southern California,” she explains, noting that the onboarding process includes tours of various facilities. “When they understand the mission of what they’re doing, it helps them buy into that mission — wins their lifelong allegiance to the organization. It’s a very intentional and strategic approach to employee retention.”

Pitman adds that studies show that today’s younger employees want more than just a job and a paycheck — they want to feel like they’re making a difference. And the utility’s onboarding process shows how new employees are doing just that, she says.

Last but not least, boosting gender diversity — and diversity in general — requires more than just meeting a certain number or percentage of certain kinds of employees. Organizations also have to create inclusive cultures where new employees feel comfortable and welcome.

“Newer and younger employees have a lot of new ideas, but many times long-time employees want them to learn before they express those new ideas,” Pitman says. “So there’s a communication issue that requires changing the ideas of acceptance and inclusion. You can’t retain employees if they don’t feel like they’re included.

“We can’t focus on just the numbers because they’re just a snapshot in time,” she adds. “We still have work to do, even if the numbers of female engineers, for instance, are improving, because new cultures and ideas bring new challenges. We’re constantly looking at ways to better support those younger employees because retention is the key.” F

Editor’s note:

This article is part of an ongoing series that examines how water and sewer utilities are handling succession planning in the wake of the industry’s looming labor shortage.


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