Planning for Utility Workforce Succession

Texas water utility takes strategic approach to handling a potential wave of retirees.

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Faced with the prospect of hundreds of employees becoming eligible for retirement in a relatively short time frame, the city of Fort Worth Water Utility knew it had to get serious about succession planning.

What transpired during the next several years, starting around 2017, could serve as a blueprint for other utilities facing the same challenges posed by the so-called “silver tsunami.”

The predicament created as waves of baby boomers prepare to exit the industry is well-documented; various studies show that up to 3 million water and wastewater workers nationwide — roughly one-third of the total workforce — will become eligible for retirement during the next 10 years.

That roughly mirrors the situation at the Fort Worth utility, where about 285 of its roughly 930 employees, or about 31%, will qualify for retirement within the next five years, says Shane Zondor, manager of workforce initiatives.

“We could see the hand-writing on the wall,” he says. “Our workforce is aging and we needed to start preparing and planning for succession.”

Daunting task

One of the biggest downsides of many employees leaving after decades of service is the loss of so-called institutional memory — the hands-on knowledge and intuition employees develop after decades on the job. Few organizations, public or private, are prescient enough to document this knowledge, which can include everything from self-developed, time-saving shortcuts to efficiently and competently handling operational emergencies to merely knowing which key people in an organization to contact when help is needed.

“Longtime employees know all the ins and outs of operating their plants, gained from years of working with the same people, equipment and processes,” Zondor explains. “They operate with a depth of intuition and experience, and those intangible job aspects are very hard to train people to do.

“So the key is to find a way to off-load that institutional knowledge to younger employees, which gives them the confidence to do the jobs.”

Succession planning is a daunting prospect, especially for utilities that have nothing in place and little time on the horizon to prepare. “It often seems overwhelming,” he notes. “The issue for many utilities is they don’t know where to start.”

That was the case at FWWU. So the utility hired a third-party consultant to help it develop a road map for succession planning.

Starting at square one

The consultant helped utility officials develop a multi-pronged approach. Because succession planning can take a long time to develop, the utility decided to primarily focus on areas where retiring employees would hit delivery of services the hardest, as well as on positions that historically are the most difficult to fill, Zondor explains.

“That helped define where we needed to go,” he says. “Plant operations became the highest priority because employees there have the most institutional knowledge and their jobs also are the hardest to fill.”

After identifying the positions with the highest succession priority, utility officials began to map out detailed job descriptions for those jobs, with an intense focus on daily, weekly and monthly “milestone” tasks performed on a routine basis, he says.

During a series of meetings, officials then worked with the affected employees to break down those tasks into even smaller pieces until a comprehensive picture of their job responsibilities emerged.

“It looks kind of like a spiderweb when you’re done,” Zondor says.

Don’t rush the process

It helps to ask the affected employees well ahead of the meetings to start thinking about their job routines and repetitive tasks and processes. The job-mapping process shouldn’t be rushed, either, as employees aren’t likely to recall every single thing they do during the first couple run-throughs, he cautions.

“It takes about an average of three weeks, with an initial review done one day followed by multiple check-ins,” Zondor says. “It’s hard to do. The brain is a muscle, and in that sense, most of what we do at jobs is, in a sense, muscle memory — it’s done on autopilot.

“So it’s important to give employees adequate time to reflect on their job and experience.”

When the process is complete, the job map is reviewed with the employee, followed by a separate meeting with the employee’s supervisor. Interviewing the supervisors separately provides an honest assessment of the position, the skills and experience needed, as well as how they see this position evolving over time, based on technological advances and utility strategy. 

Benefits abound

Detailed job maps provide multiple benefits. Consider task alignment, for example, or ensuring that employees are doing the tasks they’re really supposed to be doing, Zondor notes.

That may sound odd, but Zondor points out that it’s not unusual for job maps to reveal that employees are doing things that technically aren’t part of their jobs. Perhaps it’s duties that the employee enjoyed and didn’t want to give up after a promotion, for instance. Or a task that an employee simply found easier to do on their own instead of delegating it to someone else — and just kept on doing it for years.

Either way, the road maps give organizations an opportunity to align tasks under the job positions where they should reside, which aids the overall efficiency and effectiveness of teams, Zondor points out.

The job maps also provide an opportunity to update and revise job classifications to be sure they truly reflect the work that’s actually being performed. It’s not unusual for job descriptions to get outdated and require updating, he notes.

Perhaps even more importantly, these job maps also can help organizations spot knowledge gaps by comparing the job descriptions to the qualifications of staffers who might be next in line when an employee above them retires or takes another job.

“Not everyone wants to progress to the next level,” Zondor notes. “But it helps to know where knowledge gaps exist — see whether or not people who want to move up have the right skill sets. It also tells those employees what the job entails and the experience needed.”

Objective benchmarks

This latter factor is especially useful for avoiding situations where employees take it personally when they’re passed up for a promotion and get disgruntled and/or demoralized, he says.

Employees often believe they’re capable of doing a job based on anecdotal information. But a job map provides a more accurate and objective picture, including benchmarks against which they can measure their skills. That, in turn, can change their perception of how qualified they really are to actually do the job, Zondor notes.

“The goal is to flip this scenario from what appears to be a subjective process to more of an objective process,” he says. “At times, organizations tend to create expectations that certain employees will be the next logical choice for a position when it opens up.

“But we want to shy away from that and put the ball in the employees’ court — tell them they need to earn the position and have them take an active role in their professional development.”

The job descriptions also are useful for measuring the skills of external job candidates, he adds.

Lots of work remains

Zondor says the utility has a long way to go before its succession plan is complete. The primary short-term focus is developing job maps for employees with upcoming eligibility for retirement, followed by the rest of the workforce.

When that’s completed, he contends the utility will no longer have a succession plan.

“After we get all those positions documented, employees with aspirations to grow can look at the job road maps and determine what training they need to be ready for a job when it becomes available,” he says.

“Creating descriptions for all the jobs in the utility is a huge undertaking, but it’s critically important because when it’s finished, our succession plan no longer is a succession plan for retirements — it’s an employee-development plan,” he continues. “That’s what we’re striving for, and we’re fighting hard to get there.” 


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