From Buddy to Boss

Trainer sees gap in leadership training for operators advancing from crew to supervisor
From Buddy to Boss

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Chemistry, math and equipment maintenance are fairly common offerings from training centers and certification programs across the country. But newly promoted operators don’t have available training to help them manage the transition to that of supervisor with oversight of former colleagues, claims trainer Glynn Stoffel. 

“There’s clearly a need in the industry for leadership training,” he says. “What tends to happen is that once someone makes the transition from operator to manager, they are faced with operational, budget and personnel challenges. They may need management training in all those, but they also need help transitioning.” 

After a 28-year career as a backhoe operator who made a transition from crew to superintendent of line maintenance, Stoffel knows how difficult the change can be for operators. 

As a Certified Environmental Trainer, Stoffel has worked for the Maryland Center of Environmental Training since 1991, and also provides maintenance training for those employed in any water, sewer and environmental occupations through the University of Florida’s Center for Training Research & Education for Environmental Occupations (TREEO). 

Stoffel explained his opinions about leadership training in the water and wastewater industry in an interview with Water System Operator

WSO: What types of training programs do you lead?

Stoffel: I pretty much do water and wastewater O&M training. One of the classes I do at TREEO is a four-day class to prepare water distribution system operators for the state certification exam. I also do pump and lift station maintenance training there. I think TREEO is one of the premiere training centers for Hazmat, water, wastewater and backflow protection in the country. 

In our water distribution certification prep class, I handle the bulk of the training on pipes, valves, operations and maintenance. We start by discussing how water distribution systems operate and how they’re installed and maintained. We also cover basic math, hydraulics and safety to prepare the students for the exam. 

WSO: Why are your consulting projects with utilities an important adjunct to your training responsibilities?

Stoffel: To keep my training from getting stale, it’s important to continue to do consulting projects that keep me in touch with the latest developments in the industry. 

Right now I’m employed by PEER Consultants P.C. working on a project at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington D.C., doing “inside the fence” training for plant maintenance, as well as some process training. 

Other types of projects I get involved with through PEER include the assessment of collection and distribution system maintenance programs, such as one I’m working on now for the City of Baltimore. 

WSO: How is leadership training lacking in today’s classroom offerings for water and wastewater operators?

Stoffel: There’s clearly a need in the industry for leadership training. In collection and distribution in particular, the work is crew-based and often someone will get promoted from the crew to a level of supervisory responsibility. But it’s not always easy to successfully move from being a peer to being a leader. 

What tends to happen is that once someone makes that transition from operator to manager, they are faced with operational, budget and personnel challenges. Granted, they may need management training in all those, but they also need help transitioning. 

The same crews who used to be their buddies – the guys they used to go for a drink with after work – are now their responsibility. The larger the utility, the greater the opportunities are for advancement; and understandably, it can be a tough transition. 

WSO: What do you think the solution is to the lack in leadership training?

Stoffel: Sometimes new managers are sent by their utility to leadership training – but most of those programs tend to be pretty standard training for any industry. So it’s not so much that there’s a lack of leadership training but a lack of transitory-type training. 

That’s why I’m working on putting leadership classes together which recognize where we once were and the ties we used to have with the people we now supervise. 

I just developed a one-day class, Leadership Techniques for the Team Leader, through the Maryland Center for Environmental Training that discusses transition techniques and skills. We’ll probably include that as part of our regular course offerings. 

WSO: What else do you feel could be done to improve training programs for water distribution and collection operators?

Stoffel: What I get concerned about are operators who come for training but then don’t have the resources to practice what they learn. Retention is low if they can’t practice right away what they just learned. 

As a training consultant, when I work with utilities one of the things I try to have them do is build an action plan to help operators apply what they just learned. I recommend anyone bringing in a trainer plan up front what needs to be done afterwards to help students immediately practice what they learned. 

Training is always more effective when tied to opportunities to practice. We know that many operators come to class just because “I need the hours.” But the purpose of training is really to change performance. If there’s not an avenue for operators to practice what they’ve learned, then the training ends up being nothing more than logging hours. 

Having been a manager myself, I’m pretty adamant about this. Students often complain that they couldn’t practice what they learned because, “We got too busy with other work” or “We didn’t have the tools to do what we learned.” 

It’s frustrating because trainers don’t teach just so an operator can get hours. We’re looking to create a change in performance. 

WSO: What should trainers be doing about affecting a change in performance?

Stoffel: Well, admittedly it’s easier to accomplish for a client when doing customized training because I can tell them, “This is what you have to do to help your people practice what they just learned so it becomes habit.” Most trainers use all kinds of tactics to move what’s taught from students’ short-term memory into their long-term memory. 

For instance, I’m always trying to get students involved in the classroom activities. At MCET we’re starting to use audience response units, or “clickers,” to poll the class on the answers to questions. It’s a great tool to hold their interest and get them engaged in learning. 

WSO: What’s the most difficult topic to teach operators? about math?

Stoffel: Many struggle with the math portion, but I think people get so hung up on the math that they don’t take enough time studying for the operations and process side of the test, and that’s why we see some very low pass rates. You could conceivably miss all math problems and still pass the test, but you can’t miss all the operations questions and still pass. 

Just taking a prep class doesn’t mean you’ll pass the test. Most states have a tough test; these exams are not designed to be easy. Some of the math questions are pretty tough but the operations questions can be just as tough if you don’t study properly. I think the best model is when students have time to immerse themselves in the subject. 

Maryland’s Operators Association holds an annual “Short Course” where the students spend four days living at a college going to classes during the day and taking the state exam the fifth day. They stay in a dorm and every evening there are events designed to keep everyone together – not only to socialize but to foster discussion about the classes. The only night they don’t have an event is on Thursday night before Friday’s test. That’s the study night. Study groups are encouraged, and instructors go around to the various groups and help them out. I think the pass rates are pretty good with this model. 

WSO: What’s the key to motivating students to study?

Stoffel: I think there have to be incentives. Utilities have to do more than say “Here’s a class for your state certification. Go get it.” Obviously, the ones who are the most motivated are those who are looking forward to a step-up in pay once they’re certified. 

Utilities have to be clear about what that certification means in terms of pay, job security, responsibilities, and more – especially if certification is not mandated. 

WSO: Do you think states should adopt national certification standards?

Stoffel: I’m on the Florida State Certification Committee for water distribution systems. We use Associated Boards of Certification questions in our certification testing – with one important difference. Florida brings together a committee of utility managers and trainers who actively work in O&M. 

Every year we meet and review the questions submitted by ABC to make sure they are relevant to Florida operators, that the questions are properly phrased, and that every answer can be found in one of the references used for training in the state, such as the Florida Codes, Sacramento Manuals or AWWA/WEF Manuals. Only after that process is the question approved for use in Florida’s exam. 

I think this should be a model for how every state reviews their certification tests. 

WSO: What concerns you most about the future of the industry and its training programs?

Stoffel: What I hear from every operator I talk to is concern that they’re not seeing a lot of young people going into the industry any more. It’s not like it used to be years ago, and they’re worried about who is going to take over these jobs, which are essential for communities. That’s why I think it’s critical that utilities to get involved in job fairs. 

There are a lot of kids coming out of high school and college needing a job, but they have no direction or ideas. In fact, many don’t even know about the jobs available in the water and wastewater fields. 

Kids may initially think these types of jobs are beneath them or don’t see the opportunities that exist. But I started working in this industry when I was fairly young and was able to start drawing a pension at a relatively young age, when I decided to make a move to consulting and training. How many other career fields provide that opportunity?


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