No Retention, No Succession

Without employee development and retention, succession planning is a moot point.

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To contend with a potentially large wave of retirements, the City of Fort Worth Water Utility embarked on a painstaking journey in 2017 to develop a comprehensive succession plan.

Around the same time, utility officials also initiated a parallel effort aimed at employee development. The reasoning was simple: If you don’t groom younger employees for advancement, they’re more likely to leave. Or perhaps they stay but are never qualified to fill the void left when longtime managers retire. That, in turn, renders succession planning a moot point.

“Succession planning and employee development go hand in hand,” says Shane Zondor, the utility’s manager of workforce initiatives. “If we’re not developing future leaders, then we’re mostly just maintaining the status quo.

“From an organizational standpoint, there’s nothing worse than having an opening for a mid-management-and-above position and finding you have zero internal candidates.”

It’s not that the utility didn’t develop employees before this initiative. But it was primarily supervisors’ responsibility and, as such, wasn’t always a priority amid the steady stream of brush fires they face every day.

“The quality of employee development was dependent on the supervisors,” Zondor explains. “And unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that they’re often overwhelmed by just their daily tasks.”

Sharper focus on development

So in 2017, in an effort to standardize employee development efforts across the utility, officials created a formal organizational development section within its management services division. In August 2020, it subdivided the section even further, creating a workforce initiatives section.

“We found we needed more specialized and more focused efforts,” he notes.

The organizational development section now focuses more on bigger-picture strategies that ensure the utility is meeting the needs of consumers as well as industry standards. At the same time, the workforce initiatives  section homes in on employee development, which includes training, mentorships, succession planning and community-outreach programs that expose young students to water and wastewater careers.

“Employee empowerment is one of the biggest pieces of our initiatives,” Zondor points out. “You can force development on employees and hope they take advantage of it. Or you can empower them to take on their own development — let them decide whether or not they want to advance.

“Oftentimes organizations force-feed development,” he continues. “But we believe in connecting employees with opportunities and letting them take advantage if they want to, and use coaching and mentorships as catalysts to buy into that development.”

Mapping out proficiencies

A central component of the utility’s succession planning is so-called “job maps.” They essentially are very detailed job descriptions for higher-level jobs, including daily, weekly and monthly “milestone” tasks performed on a routine basis. The maps help officials determine what skills are needed to fill those positions.

Workforce-initiatives officials decided to also use the job-mapping concept as a skills-assessment tool. Comparing an employee’s proficiencies and deficiencies to a job map of their position clearly reveals training needs. Furthermore, those skills can be compared to a job map for a next-level position to determine what training is needed for career advancement, Zondor explains.

“It mirrors exactly what we’re doing in succession planning,” he says.

After a map is developed, both the employee and his or her supervisor are interviewed. “We interview both because it’s natural for people to either overinflate or underrepresent themselves,” Zondor says. “It’s always a good idea to see both sides of the coin, because the truth often resides in the middle.”

After the interviews, a meeting with both parties is held to discuss areas where large differences exist between the employee and supervisor assessments. Then a training specialist steps in and works with the supervisor to create a training plan to bridge any skill gaps.

New onboarding process

The job maps also play a role in the utility’s revised onboarding process for new employees. The maps benefit the recruiting process by providing a detailed description of skills needed for positions. Moreover, they also enable section officials to develop tailored training plans for new employees, given that even the best job candidates don’t possess every required skill.

“The job maps identify where the rubber meets the road,” Zondor says. “If you’re going to take the time to do them, you might as well get the most benefit from them.”

The onboarding process now also includes a half-day program that fully immerses new employees in the history and culture of the utility. Providing this kind of context is an important part of employee-retention efforts, he says.

“There’s something to be said for understanding where an organization comes from,” Zondor explains. “Providing water seems pretty basic to the average citizen, but for those who provide it, it’s a big process and a large responsibility.

“As such, exposing them to our organization’s culture and its amazing accomplishments during the last 100 years unites them with a single purpose.”

In-house licensing program

To further enhance its career-development efforts, the utility also provides in-house training for employees to earn water and wastewater operators’ licenses. The utility used to rely on external training.

“We wanted to be more self-sustaining when it came to the licensing process,” Zondor says. “We don’t have to rely on other organizations’ schedules and we can standardize the training to fit our operations. When you use your own utility, it solidifies the training and makes it more clear and digestible for our employees.”

To better fill the pipeline of prospective employees — particularly in hard-to-fill positions, such as instrumentation and electrical technicians — the utility also started participating in the national Pathways to Technology (P-Tech) program in 2019.

The program helps steer high school students to science, technology, engineering and math careers right out of school. In this case, the utility partners with Tarrant County College and the  Fort Worth Independent School District’s Early Collegiate High School to develop a curriculum for qualifying students to become instrumentation and electrical technicians.

“We work with them (the schools) to provide work-based learning experiences and internships,” Zondor says. “Students who go through the program can graduate from high school with a professional certification and get a job here.”

Going forward, the utility — like so many others — faces a daunting obstacle with about 285 of its roughly 930 employees, or about 31%, eligible for retirement within the next five years. But the utility is fortifying its position and is prepared to meet the challenge.

“The foundation we lay down today will determine our utility’s level of effectiveness tomorrow,” Zondor says. “Understanding the trends, needs and future of your workforce requires concentrated effort and time.

“Bridging skill gaps, retooling the workforce and creating a strong bench for succession takes even longer. That said, there is no better time than today to start addressing future workforce needs.” 


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