Tallahassee Plant On Cutting Edge Of Skill-Based Career Advancement

After Tallahassee upgraded its wastewater reclamation treatment facility, the utility developed an employee career progression plan to improve workforce skills.
Tallahassee Plant On Cutting Edge Of Skill-Based Career Advancement
Tallahassee employees participate in hands-on training.

In 2011, the City of Tallahassee, Florida, finished major improvements to enhance water quality and reduce wastewater effluent nitrogen. This included an overhaul at the 26.5 mgd (design) Thomas P. Smith Water Reclamation Facility.

The upgrades meant employees had to learn new processes, but Joe Cheatham, wastewater treatment operations manager, saw an even bigger challenge: 20 percent of the wastewater department’s 150 employees were eligible to retire in less than 10 years. “With the facility upgrades, we were going to need a lot of training,” he says. “But a large part of our workforce would soon be at retirement age, and then we’d have gaps to fill. The upgrades were a driver in us becoming proactive.”

The Tallahassee Wastewater Department, serving 72,000 customers, did not have a comprehensive program to train the current and incoming workforce effectively or groom team members for advancement. In response, wastewater and city officials created a workforce development program for the department.

Career progression

The city assigned a compliance and career progression manager to oversee development of a succession program. The approach centered around a career progression ladder, focusing on existing and new employees. The idea was to roll out the program in the wastewater department and then let it serve as a model to the other agencies in the city, Florida’s capital.

The compliance manager and a team of employees began work on the employee development initiative in 2011. They started with an outline, intending to create a culture of continuous improvement with a focus of working in teams. After significant benchmarking, research and visits to other facilities, they created a plan that outlined the program’s purpose, scope, responsibilities, procedures and tracking.

The development team used resources from Florida State University’s Certified Public Manager Program to establish part of its curriculum and coursework on leadership. The team also looked to the Florida Sterling Council for guidance on training. The council, established by the governor’s office, works to develop businesses and organizations throughout the state. The training component touches on knowledge, workforce development, operational processes and results.

In March 2014, the city adopted a career progression plan that aims to build a healthy work culture and a highly skilled workforce, develop and retain quality employees, provide career advancement opportunities through a defined training program, and instill a culture of excellence and teamwork.

“We want to promote our staff from within,” says Cheatham. “That means keeping track of the key performance indicators on a scorecard. We now track training hours, the number of people advanced, turnover rates and overtime. We believe that with a better trained workforce, we’ll improve our safety record and reduce claims.”

Cleared for launch

After approval of the plan, the city launched its pilot program, targeting nine wastewater field employees, the largest group in the department, including mainly newly hired and junior equipment operators and maintenance and repair workers.

“The pilot program enabled us to standardize some of the job responsibilities and reduce the number of titles, creating a clearer path for career progression,” says Cheatham. “We focused on our junior level employees first, because they need the most training and it will take a couple of years to develop them.”

The utility assigned supervisors as in-house trainers: “No one knows better how procedures should flow than our supervisors, and they can lead junior level staff to that level of continuous improvement.” The training used for the pilot program will be integrated into a training program for the utility as a whole.

The next phase of the plan will focus on developing wastewater department employees at all levels, including supervisors and management. Training means not only teaching but also listening to and engaging employees. To collect data, the city created an employee engagement survey. “We ask the same questions year after year and have seen our scores rise,” says Cheatham. “We also schedule focus groups to discuss concerns and opportunities.”

Signs of progress

One year into the launch, Cheatham already sees success. Turnover is flat among junior staff; employees are more engaged and contribute in ways they previously did not. For example, team members recommended a major improvement to the bleach mixing system. They determined that the existing design was not working to capacity and presented maintenance issues.

Department leaders allowed the employees to try a different mixing solution for six months and then reviewed data. With the dilution changes, the system remained compliant, reduced maintenance and significantly reduced costs. “Our employees saved us more than $140,000,” Cheatham says.

The department also started an employee recognition program that highlights innovations and achievements. As part of that, the department publicized the new bleach system and results with an article on the employee Internet portal. Those who devised the improvement presented the project to the city manager at a budget hearing.

Says Cheatham, “Our employees were responsible for a great idea. They deserved the recognition for a job well done.”

Putting it together

This year, the wastewater department has begun training for all employees, many of whom have been eager to take part.

“Putting together a program like this takes a lot of time, a lot of planning and a lot of resources,” says Cheatham. “It may be difficult to assign a dollar amount on it, but when you’re training your employees right and they feel important in what they are doing and perform the best to their ability, a career progression plan is worth everything.”


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