King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) is facing the same workforce challenges that confront many clean water utilities across the United States. Hard working senior employees throughout our organization are retiring. We need to recruit new employees and help them onboard to a career protecting public health and our environment.
The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 sparked the beginning of many wastewater careers. A costly and damaging fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio triggered an amendment of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The amendment, known as the Clean Water Act, included requirements and construction grants to build treatment facilities across the United States. Even after construction grants were phased out in 1987, wastewater systems continue to be expanded and upgraded to serve growing populations of people increasingly aware of environmental issues.
Many of WTD’s most experienced people- about 45% of our workforce- began their careers during the height of that infrastructure boom and are eligible for retirement within the next five years.
Our Project Management Unit has already celebrated retirement of senior managers, engineers, and project control experts with a long history building the wastewater system. With up to $300 million each year in capital project budget, and 14 projects slated to meet combined sewer overflow control goals by 2030, we need smart, dedicated recruits to walk in the footsteps of seasoned veterans.
WTD recently welcomed onboard a new crew of project managers and project control engineers. because we know how complex wastewater projects can be, WTD is finding creative ways to accelerate the learning curve for these future leaders.
Like remodeling, only a lot larger
If you’ve ever led a major remodeling project in an apartment building, condo, home, community group building, school or business, you know a little what it’s like to manage projects at WTD.
You confirm your budget. You find designers and contractors. You work on design, apply for permits, figure out how the project will affect people nearby, and adjust the budget as you know more detail. You’re a go-between for different contractors, a local permitting agency, maybe utilities, and your neighbors and people who use the building.
When that remodel begins, you always get a few surprises. There’s that old forgotten wiring, the pipe on the verge of failures, or unexpected, sometimes expensive discoveries below floorboards and behind walls.
WTD’s project teams face these challenges on a large scale, along with requirements and commitments to our ratepayers, communities and the environment as we build infrastructure that supports our region.
Giving project managers resources to succeed
WTD has long managed capital projects based on the international standards of the Project Management Institute (PMI). Project managers earn PMI certification after 4 days of class time, an intensive application process, and a grueling 4-hour exam.
That is a good start to learn the processes we use. But WTD takes an extra step, hosting Friday afternoon project management “boot camps” for six weeks. Presenters introduce the agency’s approach, build “soft skills” and connect new employees to peers who can be sounding boards and resources. These interactive classes emphasize collaboration, original thinking, clear communication and an understanding of team roles.
Directing the orchestra
Project Management (PM) and Project Control Engineer (PCE) leads make sure a project is planned, designed, and carried out on time and within budget and scope. Teams include leads for all project elements: property and permitting, community, environment, design of equipment, buildings, and landscaping, and project control to track schedule and budget.
“I like to think of myself as an orchestrator who arranges all of the parts of the performance,” said Sonia-Lynn Abenojar, PM. “I make sure everyone comes into the picture at the right time and plays the right role.”
A well-informed, cohesive team can reduce the time and cost required to complete a project, saving ratepayers money while efficiently meeting needs for safe, reliable sewer service.
“These types of complex projects need a wide range of expertise on the team during design and construction,” said Lisa Taylor, PCE Manager.
These classes orient new PMs and PCEs to WTD’s culture and expectations around teamwork. Trainees learn that WTD teams build projects through collaboration. “We reinforce the idea that project team members rely on each other,” said Joe Barnett, PM Unit Manager.
Sibel Yildiz, a senior PM, agrees. “Managing a room full of different experts can be challenging, especially on a really complex project. Communication and coordination skills are critical to make the team successful.”
Trainees appreciated the opportunity to develop support networks. “The classes helped me bond with my peers as well as upper management,” observed Preston Beck, PCE.
Added Abenojar, “And now I really understand the distinct responsibilities everyone on the project team has. Each day was an opportunity to learn from folks who have so much great experience in wastewater and beyond.”
Fresh ideas contribute to continuous improvement
At WTD, we are proud of the system and processes we have in place to carry out these giant “remodeling projects”. But WTD recognizes new project leaders and teams present opportunities for constructive change.
Chad Merrill, Project Control and Contract Supervisor, encouraged attendees to share their experiences, both positive and negative. He challenged them to bring fresh perspectives to the table, and to question existing processes and methods.
Preston Beck felt empowered by the opportunity to think outside of the box. “It was like an open forum. I felt encouraged to ask questions and bring up topics that weren’t on the agenda or in the presentation.”
WTD recognizes that people are as important as process on our projects.
“Good management means giving individual employees the opportunity to use their minds,” said Christina Cheng, PCE. “As long as we meet the end objective, it’s okay to deviate from someone else’s method.”
“It’s especially important to give new team members a context of why an aspect of a project or procedure is important, because how we get to an end goal can have some flexibility,” Taylor said.
“There are many different ways to the finish line.”
Next steps in the journey
The first boot camp graduates look forward to more learning opportunities. The Project Management Unit is already scheduling additional trainings for new recruits and veterans alike.
Lisa Taylor noted that all employees can benefit from discussions and team-building. “These classes aren’t just for new employees.”
“Sometimes we all- even seasoned veterans- need to take a step back and assume we’re approaching our work for the very first time.”
Sonja-Lynn Abenojar takes a broader view of project success. “It’s obvious to me that people love what they do here. We all understand the role we play in the broader mission of protecting water quality for our communities in the Puget Sound region.”