It Takes a Village - Strategies for Developing and Sustaining a Technical Workforce

Authors:

  • Moalie Jose PE - Hazen and Sawyer
  • Azzam Ahmed - City of Baltimore Public Works

The City of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works (DPW), like most utilities, is challenged with an aging infrastructure and aging workforce that is retiring, taking precious institutional knowledge with them. DPW seeks to remedy the latter by hiring 40 new engineers and other technical staff putting them through an extensive training program over a 5 year period.

DPW supplies clean drinking water to approximately 1.8 million people in the City of Baltimore and surrounding metropolitan areas and has approximately 4,000 miles of water distribution pipes with an average age of 75 years and some more than 100 years old. In addition DPW has 3,100 miles of sewer mains and approximately 1,100 miles of storm pipes. Operation and maintenance of such a large utility system requires a workforce with a sound technical knowledge and a holistic view of the system.

The DPW maintains a workforce of over 2,400 people. In order to keep DPW running efficiently, training of newer staff in varied and specific skill sets is critical. Developing a young workforce requires planning a systematic training program that along with technical training, and mentoring also passes institutional knowledge to the newer workforce.

Several keys to planning and implementing a comprehensive workforce development training program include: identifying DPW’s goals, grouping new staff into manageable teams, preparing a customized training program, tracking progress of the training and staff, encouraging feedback, and providing resources and a supportive environment for learning. The program is organized in three specific training methods: classroom training sessions, one-on-one mentoring, and flash mentoring with subject matter experts.

The first training method involves classes once a week for four months covering relevant topics, which including multiple presenters from various departments. This multi-layered training gave an insight into how different areas come together cohesively to maintain the system and DPW as a whole. Topics varied from hydraulic engineering, program management, asset management, constructability review, engineering computations, water main design, project controls and public outreach. Real world examples and lessons learned were used in the training. An assessment and evaluation of the training and the presenter by the attendees was important and key to improving the training and will be used for other groups.

One-on-one mentoring is the second training approach that provided daily interaction between the technical and project management staff and the new hires. This included construction site visits, overlooking schedules, reviewing technical drawings, interacting with outside agencies and

performing daily tasks as needed. While mentoring included a primary mentor, there were other mentors as well, which was helpful in expanding the knowledge base. Technical mentoring involves performing technical tasks such as reviewing and/or designing. As the staff became proficient, tasks were assigned to be performed independently and reviewed by the technical mentor. Professional mentoring included, but was not limited to, attending progress meetings, reviewing schedules, responding to requests for information, interacting with design consultants and reviewing budgets.

Lastly, flash mentoring was an efficient method of teaming the new staff with a particular mentor with an area of expertise for a single meeting to learn or assist in a specific task. These flash mentors varied from a construction manager, a scheduler, a GIS analyst, CAD designer or urgent needs supervisor. The point of flash mentoring was to provide resources for the trainee and to identify specific people with areas of expertise while introducing them to different tasks.

Through all aspects of the training, communication was highly emphasized. The DPW interacts with nine internal agencies and around eight outside agencies during the course of a design so it is important that trainees can effectively communicate. Trainees were encouraged to meet and coordinate with different sections to better understand the process and form an open communication channel.

While the key is to have an all-round training program, it should be noted that people have different skill sets and matching them to their area of interest will result in better employee retention and a more sustainable workforce. DPW provides organizational support and exceptional opportunities for professional development to all employees. Of all the assets the DPW maintains, people are the most important. It is also critical to recognize that out world is undergoing massive digital and technological advances and training should be done with a future perspective. An organization like DPW will continue to be viable and successful as long as it provides opportunities to the people who form the workforce to grow, learn and progress.

For more information, please contact the author at mjose@hazenandsawyer.com.

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