Our Aging Pipes, Our Aging Workforce

Last month we visited a town whose pipe records were all kept on paper and managed by a local engineer with his own firm.  Recently, that engineer had retired and sold his business assets to another firm – including this town’s records and maps!  Only a few people even knew about this, even fewer knew how to find the new engineer, and the majority thought that the records had been lost or simply never existed.

Our industry is facing two major issues and they are creating the ‘perfect storm’.  The first is that many of us are getting ready to start that much-anticipated retirement, but there aren’t a lot of people queued up to take our places.  At the same time, we have infrastructure that is aging, and we have antiquated systems for keeping track of them.

Here are a few tips on how to manage these various issues:

  • Identify critical knowledge and skills and evaluate the risk associated with losing any of those.  Ask everybody in your organization for input.  Most important are those items for which there is little in place, and those where ‘tribal knowledge’ seems to play the biggest role.  Develop actions to specifically manage the greatest risks identified.  The Tennessee Valley Authority offers a good (and often-documented) example of ways to address this issue.
  • Implement a process and systems to capture not only GIS data but all relevant information about your assets in near real-time.  Ensure that the system is easy to use and access.  Build an archive and knowledge transfer process.  Too often, we get comfortable relying on resources that won’t be there forever; and even those that might be around forever have to make it easy for someone to pick up where the previous owner left off.
  • Build mentor relationships to help facilitate knowledge transfer.  You can create a formal mentor/mentee program or simply pair up compatible individuals on projects.
  • Retain and groom talent.  You might have some positions that do not typically create managers; however, building programs to bring talent up from the inside helps maintain internal knowledge and also motivates employees that may otherwise move on.
  • Encourage late career workers to stay past the traditional retirement age.  You may also want to look into offering shorter work-weeks or consulting agreements for these employees.  Some places even offer phased-in retirement programs that steadily reduce working hours.  Doing this is the obvious way to retain some knowledge, but also gives you more time to implement new systems and replace talent.
  • Call up a local engineering school or high school, and see if you can do a presentation on your field.  Most people don’t even consider wastewater as a field, and even those who do probably have misconceptions about the jobs available.  They don’t know the public service and environmental benefits that they impact directly, nor do most people hear about advanced technologies, like robotics and laser imaging, that have become an integral part of the job.
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