Want to Know the Value of Networking? Talk to Rodney Spires

Rodney Spires has built a career on a large network of industry contacts who have helped him advance and provide a ready source of advice and assistance.

Want to Know the Value of Networking? Talk to Rodney Spires

Corey Means, left, chief operator, and Spires look over the equipment in the plant’s oxygen producing area.

“It started out with a good friend of mine” is a common theme on Rodney Spires’ journey. That’s how he got his lab analyst job with the Hannibal (Missouri) Wastewater Treatment Plant, how he joined the Missouri Water Environment Association Laboratory Practices Committee and how he was nominated for the 2017 Missouri Water Environment Association Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award (which he won).

Spires has forged a solid network of industry contacts and friendships in his career. They enable him to juggle full-time work at a challenging pure-oxygen wastewater treatment plant with extracurricular pursuits within and outside the industry. 

Alongside these endeavors, Spires works part time assisting with lab work in a small town nearby and volunteering as the New London Fire Department safety officer. Balancing that schedule with family life is a challenge, so his industry friendships are priceless for consulting when roadblocks threaten to slow him down.

Spires hasn’t relied on nepotism and favors to get ahead. The very fact that he got involved with the Missouri Water Environment Association — hosting the annual conference last year, authoring a presentation on polymers in wastewater treatment and achieving a voluntary D level certification for lab work — indicates the drive for success that has put him in the orbit of so many industry peers.

“This spring I had a job interview at a town down the road a couple of hours,” Spires says. “I walked into the office, and the guy giving me the interview knew me from a conference. I didn’t take it, of course, but you meet hundreds and hundreds of people in the same line of work as you attend these conferences and events. It’s nice to have those connections. It’s good for if you want to move up the ladder, but it’s also nice to have those contacts if something happens at the plant.”

Getting into wastewater

Spires never set out to enter the wastewater field. He started at the city of New London right out of high school as a laborer and from there became a maintenance mechanic with Ralls County Water District, slowly increasing his specialization in the wastewater field. A curiosity about plant mechanics and a willingness to embrace opportunity were all he needed to excel. 

His origins at Hannibal trace back to a friend of many years who was in the sewer department. “He asked me about it; he said, ‘Man, you ought to join,’” Spires recalls. “You start going and next thing you know, you get licenses and certifications, and you just keep on moving up. You keep going forward and forward, not really knowing you are, and you start racking things up pretty quick.”

He hired on with Hannibal in July 2006 as a swing-shift operator. After about two years, he advanced to relief operator, filling in when other operators took vacations and sick time. That included some lab work. “At the time, they had a lab tech, and I would fill in when he was on vacation,” Spires says.

The lab beckons

The lab work intrigued him; he liked gaining a better understanding of how the plant functioned. So, when the opportunity arose to move into the lab full time, he took it. “The other lab tech became senior operator, so then when he was busy in meetings or whatever, I would do the lab,” Spires says. “Then in 2016, I started doing lab work all the time.”

Since the plant operations crew is fairly small, Spires still assists on the operations side when necessary, but he spends about 95 percent of his time in the lab: “It’s hard to get used to because you’re used to being outside and now you’re stuck in a little bitty room, but it makes the plant more understandable.

“You can’t run your plant effectively without knowing your tests. That’s how we base our plans. We have to understand what’s going on in the plant. You can look at things and kind of guess, based on your experience, but until you run the tests, you don’t really know. You know the tests, you know the plant.”

At the time, Spires held D level wastewater operator certification, the bottom-rung license. The senior operator was at C level and encouraged Spires to advance his training. “It’s always good to have it,” Spires says. “A lot of operators, they get their D level or C level, and they think they’re good to go.” He has advanced to A level.

Although there are no regulations for lab certification at present, he believes it’s only a matter of time. If that time comes, he is confident the education he has received through the advanced certification will be grandfathered into the new regulations, putting him one step ahead.

Benefits of networking

Through earning certifications and attending conferences and trainings over several years, Spires had built a solid base of industry contacts by the time he joined the Missouri Water Environment Association Laboratory Practices Committee, a subsection formed in 1993 to “identify the needs and foster a network of resources for laboratory professionals.” The committee promotes training and education, mostly through voluntary certifications.

Once again, a friendship made through networking brought Spires into the fold: “A good friend of mine was on the lab committee, and she kind of talked me into it. It’s a good way to meet new people from all over the state and to hear new ideas.”

It’s also a boon for the Hannibal sewer department. With its analyst on the committee, the utility’s name is included on everything Spires has a hand in. But more than that, it’s a valuable resource when problems arise. “You can call any person on the committee at any time. They’ll be right there behind you,” Spires says. As part of the Missouri Water Environment Association network of resources, when operators around the state call its headquarters for help, their calls are forwarded to Spires as a regional resource. He also does remote testing for labs that don’t have the resources to perform tests themselves.   

Above and beyond

On top of all this, Spires finds time for a side job, spending about 1.5 hours a day doing lab analysis for Frankford, a town of only a few hundred people, making sure they are in compliance.

His work is all the more impressive considering the unusual demands of the Hannibal plant’s treatment method: It is one of only two fully aerobic, pure-oxygen facilities in the state. Built in 1981, the three-stage treatment process uses oxygen generated on site, treating an average of 3 mgd. The plant creates mid-80 to -90 percent pure oxygen. Its process typically yields effluent with 15 mg/L BOD and 10 mg/L TSS, well below the 30/30 permit limit.

Having a tricky system makes it extra valuable to have a wide sounding board of industry contacts for troubleshooting and creative solutions. “It’s a good way to communicate and troubleshoot from one another,” Spires says. “Lab committee members have called each other numerous times. If something happens, it’s ‘Hey, well I know a guy. Let me give him a call and I’ll ask him.’ What does he do for this kind of pump? What kind of bar screens does he use?”

Positioned to succeed

With a major award under his belt and plenty of career left to explore, Spires is happy with where he is, but he keeps an eye on the horizon. Winning the award was an affirmation that he’s going in the right direction with his work in the Missouri Water Environment Association and at Hannibal.

“It’s a good honor, and knowing that I was the only one in the whole state to get one, that was pretty special,” Spires says. “I was pretty proud. It’s a pick-me-up.” The friendships he has made and maintained have put him in great standing to advance, if he chooses.

“I like doing the lab. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun to do, just doing lab work and being precise on it, and helping others. It’s a good occupation to be in. It’s job security. Everybody’s always got to use water. Things have changed, job to job, but this line of work is always going to be here.”

Staying balanced

Despite his seemingly impossible schedule, balancing volunteer work with a full-time job and side job, Rodney Spires makes sure his commitments don’t overshadow his family life.

He states, “You have to take your family first, so you have to think: If you move up the chain, how many more hours am I spending away from my family?”

Right now, as a lab technician, he works a fairly typical 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule. This provides flexibility to spend an hour or two at the nearby Frankford lab after work while maintaining a work-life balance with his two kids and girlfriend.

At the New London Fire Department, Spires decided to take on more responsibility as the safety officer, meaning more time commitment. In that role, he is responsible for training on equipment, safety and safety management.

“I started out just a fireman, and then I kind of went up the ladder,” he says. “With this training and safety stuff, I knew that was going to put more hours into the department, so that’s something I make sure my kids understand.”

Though it’s a difficult balance, open communication has allowed him to make those commitments with his family’s support: “They’re backing me 100 percent.”


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