Retain Plant Employees by Using a Clear Job Ladder

The plan was to show employees that if they work hard and continue learning, they could move to the next level.
Retain Plant Employees by Using a Clear Job Ladder

In the last 12 years, I’ve made the climb from operator to lab tech to plant supervisor, and finally, plant superintendent. While this might look like an easy rise through the ranks, it was anything but. The process included a restructuring of the plant’s job ladder under intense resistance from our union. But it the end, it was worth it. With many operators, supervisors and superintendents getting ready to retire, it’s important to show our new employees a clear path to the top.

When I started 30 years ago, the superintendent and the two supervisors under him were all fairly young. This meant that to move up the company ladder, I would have to wait many years. Another problem was that we were in a union environment and the pay scale had no steps to increase one’s pay over time. At that time, there was a three-step scale. You’d start on step one, move on to step two after a year and then to step three after your second year.

As a new hire, that seemed pretty good. But imagine being a 10-, 20- or 30-year veteran making the same wage as someone hitting their second-year anniversary at the plant. It doesn’t give you a lot of incentive to stay long term. In addition, there was no real job ladder to climb.

That continued until about 2007 when we got a new superintendent. She recognized there was little incentive for employees. And as she modernized the plant, she realized the jobs needed to be updated as well. That meant creating a true job ladder to give structure to our treatment plant. The union negotiated a new nine-step pay scale, which included raises on years 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30. That alone improved matters, but the real progress happened by updating the jobs to reflect what was being done in the plant.

The plan was to show employees that if they work hard and continue learning, they could move to the next level when new positions open up. It was a tough process creating new job titles in a union environment, and we had a lot of resistance.

Some of it was personal and some of it was the inability of the union to understand how treatment plant regulations had changed over the years. The union includes highway, cemetery, tree and drinking water employees which is why most of them didn’t understand the regulatory part of our jobs. People who don’t work in the water/wastewater industry don’t typically understand how treatment plants are graded, or that you need special licenses to operate the plants.

The only example we could provide was the difference between CDL (commercial driver license) and regular driver’s licenses. We explained that they wouldn’t allow someone with a regular driver’s license drive to drive a 10-wheel dump truck because they’re not certified to operate that expensive equipment. Licenses and training along with permit requirements were dominating our industry, and nobody was getting compensated for all the extra work being done. It took us nearly three years to create and implement the new jobs.

I’ve included two diagrams — the first is the original structure, which was probably out of a 1960s manual for organizing a wastewater treatment plant. The second diagram shows how we’re currently operating. In Figure 1, we were running three eight-hour shifts per day and full coverage, 24 hours per day on weekends.

In the second diagram, we converted to a Monday through Friday schedule with one shift per day operation. There is now a SCADA on-call system that covers 3:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays and full 24-hour coverage on weekends.

With the modernization of the treatment plant, it was necessary to update the jobs to reflect what each employee was expected to do. Since we also operate the collection system, the job ladder was designed to work the same way for those employees. There were no layoffs in the merging of all the shifts. Now, with this ladder of jobs, new and existing employees can see a way to improve their skills and move up. As we all know, the opportunity to make more money and move up the ladder is one of the best ways to keep employees engaged and excited about their jobs.

About the author
Jeff Kalmes is a Grade 7 operator and plant superintendent at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the 2008 NEWEA Public Educator Award, the 2011 WEF National Public Educator Award and the 2015 NEWEA Operator of the Year Award. You can reach him at 


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