See How This Plant Solved Its Short-Term Staffing Problem

A temporary supervisor helps a California water district through a staffing transition and in the bargain adds valuable insights on system operations and future planning.
See How This Plant Solved Its Short-Term Staffing Problem
Jeff Ballou (center), water distribution operator from WaterTalent, with Menlo Park (California) Municipal Water District team members (from left) Pam Lowe, senior civil engineer; Brian Henry, Public Works superintendent; Azela Mitch, P.E., city engineer; and Luis Olivera Jr., water system supervisor.
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Everything was running smoothly at the Menlo Park (California) Municipal Water District. Then, the chief operator and water system supervisor left for a new job.

The three weeks’ notice he gave wasn’t enough for the district to go through its normal hiring process and bring someone new on board; the leadership faced the prospect of a staffing shortage lasting several months.

To solve the problem, the district in September 2016 issued a request for proposals for a temporary water system supervisor. In the end, the district contracted with WaterTalent for the temporary assistance it needed. Jeff Ballou, a retired water operator from a nearby city, led the Menlo Park team for 3 1/2 months, keeping the operation on track while contributing to the district master plan, mentoring staff members, and adding insights to the capital improvement project plan.

Meanwhile, the district had time to conduct a thorough recruiting, screening and hiring process, ultimately selecting Luis Olivera Jr. as water system supervisor. He came with an extensive industry background, most recently working nine years for the city of Modesto Water Services Division.

“Jeff was great to work with,” observes Brian Henry, superintendent of Public Works. “His vast knowledge, his commitment to the field and his passion for the industry were contagious among our other operators. Working with Jeff was definitely a positive experience.”

Recruiting challenge

The Menlo Park district provides water to about 16,000 customers through 4,300 service connections throughout Silicon Valley, including Facebook’s ever-expanding campus. The district purchases its water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The distribution system has three pressure zones, one with a pump station and two storage tanks totaling 5 million gallons and two operating on demand, relying on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission storage and system pressure.

In hiring a replacement for its water system supervisor, the district faced a scarcity of qualified candidates in its vicinity. Henry notes, “We’re in a unique situation where the price to buy or rent a home is pretty high, and there aren’t a lot of people in the area with the certifications we need who are looking for a job.”

Operating short-handed would have had consequences: “Our response time to any type of complaint would have been delayed. We also have a lot of development going on, and simple things like marking out utilities so that construction could move forward would have been delayed.”

Three private businesses and one water district responded to the district’s RFP. After a thorough vetting process, Menlo Park chose WaterTalent, a company that provides qualified, licensed interim water and wastewater operators to support utilities that need specialty expertise during staff transitions.

Well qualified

WaterTalent offered Ballou, who recently retired after a 36-year career with the city of Pleasanton where he served the last 15 years as chief utilities system operator. “After reviewing Jeff’s resume and interviewing him, we thought he would be a good fit not only for his career expertise, but for his attitude,” Henry says.

At Pleasanton, Ballou oversaw well water treatment and a distribution system with 20 reservoirs, 400 miles of water main and some 20,000 service connections. He was also responsible for the wastewater and stormwater collections systems. In early October 2016, he came aboard at Menlo Park and assumed leadership of the water system team, which includes Eric Dorliac, water system operator II, and Dimitri Katsaros, water quality specialist.

“Jeff ran the day-to-day operations of our water department,” Henry says. “He issued work orders to the staff. He was available around the clock for any water emergency. He reviewed all the plans for our upcoming capital improvement projects involving installation of new waterlines. He also reviewed a handful of development plans to make sure we had the proper water infrastructure to serve the developments.”

In addition, he provided significant insight into the updating of the district’s standard details book, which specifies design standards that ensure uniformity in how water system infrastructure is installed.

Forward looking

Ballou adds, “Menlo Park asked me from my outsider’s perspective to observe how they were doing things and recommend based on my experience where they could make improvements. In addition, they were working on a water master plan, which they allowed me to review and offer my feedback.”

Ballou also reviewed the district’s plans to expand its staff to accommodate continued growth. “Jeff was crucial in identifying our potential new positions and helping us map out a new organization chart for the water department,” Henry says. Since then, the City Council has approved the new positions of senior water system operator and water system operator I.

“Another of Jeff’s contributions was the mentorship he provided to our operators,” Henry says. “I remember many times Jeff coming back after long days in the field and telling how he showed our team members how to resolve an issue and how to deal with it moving forward if it should ever bubble up again.”

Mutual benefits

Henry found WaterTalent easy to work with from the beginning: “It was a very smooth process. The staff was always easy to get a hold of when there were issues or questions. They were available and ready to assist at any time. It was rewarding to be able to bring in someone with Jeff’s vast experience while WaterTalent handled the details.”

Ballou also found the experience satisfying. He hadn’t considered coming out of retirement until a WaterTalent recruiter contracted him. “The more I thought about it, the more it sounded intriguing,” he recalls. “I’m really glad I did it. It was a great experience in that it got my brain re-engaged and kept me thinking about the things I accomplished in my career.

“I wasn’t used to the on-demand part of the system because in Pleasanton we had storage in all our zones, but I had enough experience to pick it up and run with it. Things went well with the Menlo Park staff. They definitely respected the knowledge I brought to the table. They were absolutely supportive, they worked hard, and it couldn’t have worked out a whole lot better.”


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