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Stuff We Love: AWWA’s Communities of Interest

Jennifer Wilson posted on October 14, 2011 08:55 Loves: AWWA’s Conservation Community

Earlier this month, the American Water Works Association launched its first “community of interest” (COI) on the topic of water conservation. These mini web-portals will help members and non-members alike access the vast array of AWWA resources as well as interact with like-minded industry professionals.

Each community will gather topic-relevant news, research, forums, products, tools and events in one location. The COI project represents an ongoing effort across the industry to develop websites that connect people with each other as well as with information.

Stuff We Love is posted on Fridays and includes favorite documents, links and other resources for small water and wastewater systems. We’ll find the cream of the crop so you don’t have to.

Posted in: Blog Series: Stuff We Love

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Ideas for Improving Operator Retention

Steve Wilson posted on October 12, 2011 09:24

Both in June and recently, we wrote blog posts about the results of an operator survey published by the North Carolina Environmental Finance Center. This is another piece from their report dealing with operators suggestions for retention ideas.

Better Pay, Benefits Top The List

Below are the suggestions from operators as to what a utility could do to better recognize and retain them, as listed in the NCEFC survey results report.

Higher Pay

Increase Pay with Certification Level

Improve/Include Benefits

Pay for and Allow Attendance at Seminars/Workshops/Classes

Cost of Living Increase

Merit-Based Pay Increases

Provide Incentives

Certificate of Appreciation

Hire More Staff

Public Acknowledgement

Pat on the Back

Realize the Importance of Our Jobs

Training of Board Members

Increase Communication Between Board and Employees

Become More Involved with Day-to-Day Operations

I want to talk about the last 4. Honestly, if community leaders did these 4 things, some of the salary and benefit issues would likely be more understandable to them, and the community as a whole would be more likely to develop sustainable practices.

They All Fit Together

To get the mayor and/or board to realize the importance of the operator’s job, they need to communicate with the operator, become more involved in daily operations, and be trained on the issues and responsibilities they face. Maybe we have been going about this all wrong. Instead of just requiring training for board members, as some states now do, board members should also meet with the operator on a regular basis, say every other week on a weekday morning for breakfast. The operator can give an update on what has been happening, what issues he has been dealing with, what things he plans to ask the board to do and why.

In addition, each board member should spend a day each quarter working with the operator. They could help collect samples, help read meters, see how a backwash cycle is completed, order chemical, and anything else that would help them understand what goes into the operation of a water plant. I hear all the time that the problem with training board members is that they serve their two years, then someone new takes over. If a community had this sort of program in place, how long would it be before the list of supporters for the system grew well beyond the current board?

Posted in: Careers, Support, EFCs, Asset Management, Funding

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Why Operators Leave

Steve Wilson posted on October 10, 2011 10:27

Back in June I wrote a post about perceptions of operators, boards, and customers based on work completed by the North Carolina Environmental Finance Center. They surveyed 300 operators in North Carolina on a number of topics. The post in June discussed how customers and town boards value or don’t value their operators. Today, I wanted to highlight a little more from their report dealing with operator satisfaction.

Study Purpose

According to the report, one of the main reasons for completing the study was that so many small towns complain about their operators leaving. Turnover is high, and in this study they wanted to look at why. Here are some reasons they found:

32 left their last job for more money

32 left for more possibility of advancement

19 left for better benefits

12 retired

The other top 10 reasons given included plant closed/downsized; laid off; management/board issues; closer to home; career change; and better shifts. It’s a common problem for small towns across the country that small town operators, move on to better paying jobs with benefits once they have the experience to be eligible for those jobs.

Common Problem

Last week I heard two different stories about operator retention that highlight the problems for small systems. A community of about 1000 hired a new operator to run their water and wastewater plants. He left 6 months later to take a meter reader position in a large community that paid more ($26/hr) and gave him the opportunity to get into operations after 2 years making ($30/hr). So he could not only make more, but he had a chance for advancement.

In the 2nd case, a trainer told the story of a large community that offers him free space to hold CEU classes for small town operators in the area. The community provides the space because they use the training events to recruit operators/workers for their system.

You Get What You Pay For

There is really one issue here, and that is how valuable is a safe, dependable water supply to your community.  It all starts with your operator, who understands your system and has experience working with it. Without that person, the community can’t sustain their water system. Small communities are fiercely independent and want to be left alone, but at the same time don’t understand the costs required to stay that way.

What Can Be Done?

I don’t believe there is a lot a small community can do to change this trend. The facts are simple: to retain an operator long term, they will need a competitive salary with benefits and a supportive work environment. Too many small communities don’t value their water, so it follows that they don’t understand the value of their operator. It is that understanding, by the community and its leaders, that will change things, nothing else.

That said, in our next post we will share some ideas for improving operator retention.

Posted in: Careers, Support, EFCs, Asset Management, Funding

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The Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox #2

Steve Wilson posted on October 07, 2011 05:00

A little over a month ago, we let you know about a new tool available from CDC on how to prepare, deal with, and learn from situations where you need to (precautionary) or have to (mandatory) communicate with your customers to advise them of a drinking water situation in your community. In that blog post, we said we would provide more information about how this tool can help you. Today, we are going to cover some of the basics about when and why you should communicate with the public.

Why Send Out Advisories

You all know when its required, legally, to send out an advisory, most commonly a boil order, but there are a range of things that could result in an advisory, and more importantly, would be good business practice to do so. The thing you need to take away from this blog post is that you can use advisories for your benefit, to educate your customers and to engage them to take ownership of their water system.

Advisories are many times required, necessary, and bad news; they can also help you by helping your customers understand what is going on with your water system. The toolbox says there are 4 reasons to issue an advisory:

to provide information,

to encourage preparedness,

to recommend action, and

to meet public notification requirements.

Using Advisories For Your Benefit

Do you send out advisories to provide information? These are the advisories that don’t require any customer action, but let them know that something is going on. The example the toolbox mentions (on page 10) is to let customers know about seasonal changes in taste. How many of you let customers know when you are flushing lines, or dosing chlorine, or when a large storm affects your influent water quality and taste or color? Or even when you are going to be working on a water main that might shut down a road in town? Or when you are drilling a new well? Some of you may not see the need to let your community know about all of these things, they would rather deal with the few phone calls they get. What you are missing is an opportunity to teach your community more about what you do.

Changing Public Opinion

Most of us would agree that in small towns, people tend to take their water for granted. Many pay very little for clean, safe water, but the public tends to view their water as a right, not a privilege. You, as the operator, understand this is not the case. You, as the operator, are also in the best position to change that public perception. Advisories are one way to do that. When you are drilling a new well, send out an advisory letting the community know they will be getting a new resource that will benefit them. Include the cost, why its necessary, what it will mean to the town. When chlorine is going to be an issue, send out an advisory. Let them know why its necessary, how it protects them from bacterial contamination, and offer them additional resources to learn more about it.

Be Proactive

It can’t be stressed enough that the operator is the front line person for educating the public about their water system and why water costs what it does. The public needs to understand that though water itself is free, delivering clean, safe water to every home, park and building has a cost both in delivery and to maintain. You are the person who should be explaining those costs, every chance you get.

If You Need Help

If this is all new to you and you need help, let us know. We would be glad to find free materials for you to use with customers. We can also contact your local/regional technical assistance providers to get their suggestions and support of your efforts. If you really want to get serious about keeping your community in the loop, you could even start a Facebook page and post information regularly on different aspects of your system. We can help you set that up too (for free).

Posted in: Support, Consumers, Drinking Water Rules, Social Media, Emergency Response

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