The Next Wave

Utilities are tasked with the need to develop effective succession plans

Forecasts have indicated that there will be a substantial number of experienced utility employees leaving the workforce soon. Many utilities have grown increasingly aware of the need to be proactive for this exodus. WWD Managing Editor Elisabeth Lisican recently spoke with Dwight Wilson from the city of St. Petersburg (Fla.) Water Department about its comprehensive succession plan.

Elisabeth Lisican: Why should succession planning be top-of-mind for all utilities? 

Dwight Wilson: Many of the national industry organizations have done significant research that indicates a need for a well-developed and functional succession plan. Statistical forecasts indicate that as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement, a substantial number of experienced, knowledgeable employees will depart the workforce. This forecast means that utilities need to plan now for how they will deal with the tremendous loss of institutional knowledge. The challenge is to create a plan for how that knowledge will be transferred to existing employees, and to develop current staff so they are ready and able to step into those vacant roles. Additionally, the plan needs to focus on recruiting additional talent to ensure a steady pipeline of skilled workers.

Lisican: What are the main focus areas in the city of St. Petersburg Water Resources Department’s
succession plan?

Wilson: The city of St. Petersburg Water Resources Department has adopted a holistic framework for its succession plan. We focus on four main areas: health and wellness; education; development and training; and financial wealth building. Health and wellness addresses employee physical and mental health through fitness programs, quit smoking initiatives, the employee assistance program, flu shots and diabetes prevention, to name a few. To develop the education component, we have forged partnerships with several of the colleges, universities and technical schools in our region to bridge the process of continued education for staff. Staff development and training focuses on safety training, CPR certification and continuing education unit attainment. Additionally, we strongly encourage and support our staff to participate in leadership development programs at the local, state and national levels. Furthermore, we believe in the importance of financial wealth building for our employees, so we offer information on deferred compensation enrollment, personal budget classes and retirement planning. We have seen firsthand the positive impacts that can result from staff members being better informed about their finances in order to set better professional and, more importantly, personal goals. 

Lisican: How can a utility contemplating a better succession plan get started on implementing this goal?

Wilson: The first step for a utility contemplating building a better succession plan is to conduct a gap analysis. What positions will be vacant in the next several years? Five years? Ten years? This will assist in assessing what institutional knowledge will be lost in the near future. Second, what are the needs of current employees? Education, training, health and wellness all play a part in developing and sustaining a viable workforce. Third, operationalize the goals of your organization’s plan so you can measure progress and make improvements along the way. Finally, it is vital that you market your plan in a way that garners employee buy-in. It is important to have the support of executive- and senior-level management. Communicate the benefits of the plan to the staff and management, and be open to feedback on how it can be improved. 

Dwight Wilson is assistant director, Water Resources Department, for the city of St. Petersburg, Fla. Wilson can be reached at dwight.wilson@stpete.org or 727.892.5095.

Elisabeth Lisican is managing editor of Water & Wastes Digest. Lisican can be reached at elisican@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1012.

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