“What if you train them and they leave?” That was the question we were asked by many who inquired of our training program, a program born out of an effort to cross train our employees, and to elevate the professionalism of the public works profession.
In 2006, the City of Edmond was faced with consolidation challenges when several public works departments, street maintenance, water line maintenance and wastewater line maintenance, were combined under one department, Field Services. The goal was to cross train Field Services employees in all aspects of street, water line and wastewater line maintenance, to continually meet the ever increasing work load, without increasing staffing levels. By cross training our employees we could staff for normal operations, but respond, in force, in times of emergency. In order to better prepare these employees, we needed a training program. Sounds easy, but this proved to be quite a challenge, because the training program we needed did not exist. We looked into developing the program in-house, but quickly found that was not an option.
It was then we turned to a local Career Tech, Francis Tuttle Technology Center, for help in developing a training program. The program was to include classroom hours, hands-on training hours and field development hours. Francis Tuttle agreed to write the curriculum, based on our needs, and provide qualified instructors. “Qualified instructors” was the key; we needed instructors who not only knew something about the public works profession, but that could also teach adults. The City of Edmond provided funding for the training, the development of the curriculum and training facilities.
“Build it and they will come.” Not so much! Convincing our employees that they needed to be trained to do things they had been doing for 15-20 years was a challenge, as we knew it would be. While having “qualified instructors” would certainly help in this effort, we knew it would take more to incentivize our employees to embrace the training. So a “skill based pay” program was developed, whereby employees received pay increases based on their ability to successfully complete a segment of training, and demonstrated proficiency in that particular skill set. Success! We began to see the buy-in necessary to make the program work. Required skill sets were divided into three levels, Trainee, Technician and Specialist. In the Trainee level, employees are taught “what” we do in public works. In the Technician level they are trained in “how” we do it. And in the Specialist level they learned “why” we do what we do. All of our classroom and hands-on training is done during working hours, with the skill development hours being completed while working on actual jobs or projects. We call it controlled OJT (on the job training). In order to keep up with our work load, while still providing the training, we limited the class sizes to a maximum of six. Even with that, scheduling of work proved to be a challenge, but our supervisors have adjusted, and are working very well within this system.
A couple of years into the program, the downturn in the economy finally reached Oklahoma, and the funding for the training program was in jeopardy. It was during this time we sat down with our partner, Francis Tuttle, and developed a plan to make this training available to other municipalities, at a cost. This plan was formalized and presented to both governing bodies for approval. The plan was approved and a partnership was formed, the Center for Municipal Excellence (CME) was born.
Since that first class was held, hundreds of classroom hours have been completed, and thousands of field development hours logged. Our employees are better trained, more confident and are ready for any challenge that presents itself. There was a time when our employees would shy away from large and/or difficult projects, and we would contract those projects out. That is not the case today; our employees welcome the challenge, and this new found confidence has resulted in significant savings to our city. Our “skill based pay” program has gained national recognition, in that it has been approved as an apprenticeship program through the United States Department of Labor, the first, and as far as we know, the only one of its kind. To date, 15 of our employees have earned their journeyman level certification through the Department of Labor.
The CME has continued to grow and develop new curriculum and has trained numerous other municipalities and private sector companies. The CME is now housed in the Business and Innovation Center, constructed by Francis Tuttle, near our facility. Today the classroom portion of the training is held at their new location, and the hands-on training is conducted in a controlled environment at the City of Edmond’s outdoor training facility.
Eight years later, there are still challenges. Our work load continues to grow, but our staffing levels do not. Scheduling the training, while maintaining the level of service our customers have come to expect, is difficult. Updating the curriculum, to keep up with changes in technology, methods and equipment is ongoing. Even with these challenges, we are pleased with the progress we have made, and with the outstanding results we have realized.
When we first began this project, we had no idea what it would look like 8 years down the road. We are pleased with the elevated level of expertise our employees have attained. Our association with Francis Tuttle has proven to be a great partnership and the goal of training and preparing our employees to perform the work expected of them has been achieved with a high degree of success. We are still asked the question; “what if you train them and they leave?” Our response, “what if you don’t train them and they stay?”
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