The mayor of a Connecticut city uses job shadowing to gain an appreciation for the work wastewater operators do daily
“I wish they could spend a day walking in my shoes.”
How many wastewater treatment operators have entertained that thought in connection with the public officials in their communities? A goodly number, no doubt.
Marian Galbraith, mayor of Groton, Conn., granted that wish for the team at the city’s Pollution Abatement Facility — only they didn’t have to ask. Galbraith, elected to her first term in May 2011, used job shadowing as a way to get more familiar with the work of all city departments and their employees.
Her comments on the experience raise a question: Why shouldn’t clean-water plants around the country encourage a similar experience for their mayors, village presidents, council members, and other elected and appointed officials? Job shadowing goes a big step beyond the standard treatment plant tour, as it lets the visitor truly experience the operators’ roles and appreciate what they know.
Galbraith talked about her experience as “operator for a day” in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: What was your background before becoming mayor?
Galbraith: Politically I had been on the city council for nine years, but my occupation was teacher. I taught eighth grade language arts for 35 years.
TPO: How did the job shadowing venture come about?
Galbraith: Our city has the “strong mayor” system – I am not only a representative of the council, but also the chief executive officer for the city. It was very important for me to understand what it is that people do in the different jobs that contribute to the running of our city.
I know our city is a great place to live in major part because of the services we enjoy here. And those services are delivered not only through taxpayer dollars but through the hard work of our employees. I wanted to understand what those employees do on a daily basis to make the city work.
Also, people come to me regularly and say, ‘Why doesn’t the city do this? Why doesn’t the city do that?’ Well, it’s hard to answer those questions if you really don’t know what it takes on a day-to-day basis to run the city.
TPO: So the job shadowing was largely your idea? And you did this with a number of departments and occupations?
Galbraith: My very first job shadowing was on the sanitation truck, and I spent five hours picking up trash during collection day. I have done work with the electric linemen, I have directed traffic with the police, I have worked at the treatment plant, I have read water and electric meters, I’ve worked at the Customer Care desk, and I’ve done service calls with our cable company. I’ve also gone out with the Building and Zoning officials, and I have more on the agenda.
TPO: Did anything in your background inspire you to take this approach?
Galbraith: Having come from education, I always valued people in the higher echelons of the field who had a very good understanding of what happens in the classroom. This seemed to me to be a parallel.
TPO: How did you go about arranging your job shadowing at the Pollution Abatement Facility?
Galbraith: I had said at a department meeting and also at one of our employee breakfasts that I wanted to do this and I had asked people to invite me. My administrative assistant, Heidi Comeau, does the scheduling for me. I had asked that when I visited, I didn’t want to watch people. I wanted to do some of the work. I don’t have the skill sets that they have, but I wanted to be involved that day in the work they did.
TPO: How would you describe the day you spent at the treatment plant?
Galbraith: [Chief plant operator] Kevin Cini invited me and put together a day’s agenda for me. I usually do this as half a day so I can get back to the office and do other work. But Kevin put together a program so I could see all different levels. I think I worked with everybody who was down there that day [July 14].
I went around with the intern in the morning and read the meters on all the different equipment. I got to run the sludge thickener. I helped the person who tests the influent that comes in and the effluent that goes out. I got to go down to the pumping stations and look at the meters down there.
I was actually able to participate in those activities. It was important to me to do more than watch. I’m more hands-on than that.
TPO: What kind of impression did the experience leave with you? How did your impression change from what it was before?
Galbraith: As city council members, we regularly get the opportunity to visit the city departments, so I had been to the treatment plant and had seen what the process was. But first of all, through shadowing, I saw that there was a lot of very intricate work involved. I wasn’t familiar with the level of intricacy that there is in testing, for instance. I wasn’t fully aware of some of the safety issues.
For example, at the pumping stations, when you need to go into a confined space, it was interesting to see how you read the gas meters and how they work and how they have to be kept up to date. I wasn’t allowed to enter the pumping station because I don’t have that kind of training, but I handled the gas meter. I understood what we were looking for and what we were being careful of.
The staff did a great job of preparing me for each job I did and explaining why they did each thing they did. I also observed that the people just keep going. There is something to do all the time down there. People are working, working, working.
TPO: What was your general impression of the operating team?
Galbraith: There were things I always knew that were reinforced. I know the people who work in our Pollution Abatement Facility have an incredible level of ingenuity to make things work. I knew that before. Our people are known for figuring out solutions to things. This time I got to see how they were doing that.
Later on we had an issue come up at the plant, and I knew what that was about. I knew the kind of thinking they were going to put in to solve that problem, because I had seen the ways they used their ingenuity in the plant. Was this something I hadn’t known about before? No. Was it something that was strongly reconfirmed? Absolutely.
I also came away very impressed with our intern program. We had a young person over the summer, a junior from Grasso Technical High School, and first thing in the morning they had me go around with her.
What was wonderful was that she was able not just to show me what to do but to explain to me why we were doing each thing. Two of the other people I worked with that day are former interns who are now employees. So I could see how that intern program feeds into the professionalism we have. I could really see the value of that program.
TPO: Having done shadowing, how will that affect your approach to dealing with the Pollution Abatement Facility in the future?
Galbraith: Now when they come to me and say ‘We need to update this,’ or ‘This is equipment we need to look at,’ I know what they are talking about. I don’t want to imply that after a day I know what they know, but I know how the equipment fits into the system and how important it is. As I worked with them, they were able to point out to me things we might want to do in the future that would keep us as efficient as we are.
We’re going to be doing an optimization study for the Pollution Abatement Facility to look at where we need to modernize and what issues need to be addressed. Now when they talk about the equipment, I know what it is. I also know the importance of moving forward, and I know what some of the issues are that need to be addressed.
TPO: What advice would you give to other mayors or city administrators about doing job shadowing as you have?
Galbraith: I’m not sure I am in a position to give advice. But let me say what it has given me that improves my ability to be an effective administrator. It gives me an insight to what our employees do and what their workdays are like. I think that’s very important. It’s very easy for us sometimes to say ‘You should do more.’ But I think we need to know what our people are doing now.
I now know what our people are doing all the time. I wasn’t with anybody who was sitting. I was with people all day long who were working. That was very important for me to know. It’s also important for me to know the challenges that each department faces. In this case I needed to know the challenges the Pollution Abatement Facility team is living with and using their ingenuity work around.
It’s important for municipal leaders to balance what we would like to do and what we need to do with what we can afford to do. Being able to understand what the challenges are, and which ones are the most immediate, and which ones we can work around, helps me be able to make sound decisions.
TPO: What would you say to treatment plant managers or operators in other communities about inviting their officials to do job shadowing?
Galbraith: I would absolutely encourage them to do it. Someone like me who is in a full-time position should be able to make the time to come down and learn the job. I also think it’s very important for them to ask their council members and the people who make decisions that affect their work and their budgets to come and see what they do and understand the conditions of the facilities and understand the work that’s being done.
TPO: What would you offer as a final word about your experience?
Galbraith: I learned that our people have a lot to crow about. I’m able to crow about them, too.