Succession Planning in the Wastewater Industry

Written by Weao


While succession planning is a common topic in the industry, not very many people outside of it know that it’s a problem. We often hear about global warming, dwindling resources, and corporate ownership, but succession planning isn’t as hot a media topic.

But we need to talk about succession planning. When long-term employees retire and leave the industry, they’re taking knowledge, problem-solving skills, and their experience with them. We’re at an unsustainable point of the employee lifecycle.

Succession Planning

Turnover is a big problem facing our industry. Highly skilled field workers, who have been working in the industry for more than 40 years, are retiring, and leaving less-experienced trainees or new hires to keep up with aging systems.

In decades past, as Ontario’s current facilities were being built, procedures were not thoroughly documented in manuals. It’s a practice that has only started in the last few years, with the advent of cheap technology and digital storage.

Cordell Samuels, former President of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), thinks that a lot of the information regarding the system sits in people’s heads. “...And when [employees] leave, they take it with them.”

Knowledge transference is key to sustaining high-quality, safe service. Not just intra-organization, but across municipalities and systems, too.

How do you connect siloed systems?

It’s hard for many wastewater professionals to access information outside of their own municipalities and systems. It’s another matter entirely when looking for innovative and new design. Many of our water and wastewater systems are aging, with much-needed infrastructure construction or outdated methodology. And operators’ current knowledge isn’t enough to sustain our systems long-term.

Our first step, seemingly simple enough, is connecting the professionals themselves. The WEAO creates spaces for networking and knowledge transfer so that professionals don’t feel as siloed. We firmly believe that a tight-knit industry means that information is shared when and where it needs to be. And we need to continue to foster a knowledge-sharing environment that supports our students, young professionals, and experienced industry vets.

Standardization of training protocols is key for succession planning and for efficient training of new entrants. We need to ensure that information is stored outside of employee’s heads and in accessible locations.

It can be an issue of connection, too. How one municipality manages sewage sludge recycling can be helpful for another, but sometimes the people who have and need that information don’t know how to contact each other. With standardized manuals, successors can pick up exactly where others have left off.

How is your organization managing training processes? Let us know in the comments!

The Future of Design

Simply maintaining current function across employee turnover is one matter. But how do we ensure innovation and improved design for the future of the environment?

Funding isn’t necessarily the only issue when it comes to aging infrastructure. Many utilities are run 'close to the line' financially, but funding itself isn’t prohibitive to new and innovative design. But design takes a back seat to continuous function.

Facilities and systems need to last. This is key to a well-run water industry.

In Ontario, Samuels says we’ve done really well at maintaining our systems and providing great sanitary access. But now, it’s time for Ontarians to look differently at design.

We can incorporate innovations that other parts of the world have noticed success in; California has used widespread marketing and social policies to improve how citizens look at water, wastewater, and the environment industry. Singapore has shaped a unique and innovative infrastructure that reuses reclaimed water, protects urban rainwater catchments, and uses estuaries as freshwater reservoirs. They’ve improved access to safe freshwater and sanitation for 100% of their citizens.

With our access to some of the most innovative minds in the world, we have the capabilities to shape our own unique wastewater system.

Canada has some of the best engineering programs in the world, and some of the greatest innovative minds are just entering the industry. Allowing room for new design, innovation and unique perspectives can help generate public interest, and create new systems for an old problem.

It could solve the larger issues of succession planning, the lack of new entrants to wastewater, and inspire renewed excitement in one of our most important industries.


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