Many local government leaders know that as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce, the wave of retirements is hitting public-sector employees especially hard, and changes in the workforce are making it increasingly difficult to find their replacements.
Leaders in the Fort Lauderdale Public Works Department had a moment of reckoning in 2014 when they surveyed their employees and realized that more than a quarter of them were eligible for retirement by 2017. While all of the workers eligible to retire weren’t expected to leave at once, the idea that up to 28 percent of their workforce could leave in a brief window of time led them to examine ways to prepare the organization for disruptions.
“We knew our vulnerability wasn’t consistent across the department, and it was most evident in skilled water and wastewater positions, especially among treatment, lab and supervisory roles,” says Paul Berg, Fort Lauderdale’s public works director. “It was difficult to impossible to achieve full staffing, and when we advertised positions, we weren’t getting the numbers or quality candidates we needed to address the vacancies.”
Department leaders discussed the issue with other local government managers in the region and learned that most departments were facing the same challenges. They couldn’t advertise their way out of the problem, and it wasn’t enough to just hire people from other local governments. It became clear that they needed parallel strategies to both keep talented people in the department through training and promotion and recruit new employees from other workplaces.
The department’s leaders gradually became aware that there were many different ways of addressing these challenges. After some discussion, they decided to hire an outside consultant because they didn’t have the technology or expertise to manage a succession planning project, especially while managing the daily work of the department. After an RFP process, they hired Management Partners, a firm that specializes in providing management assistance to local governments, to help craft a comprehensive strategy for succession planning.
Fort Lauderdale’s Human Resources Department had also been considering a citywide succession planning effort, so Public Works officials worked with them to ensure their project didn’t overlap with or duplicate any work that Human Resources was planning to do. At first Public Works leaders envisioned a project that looked at the whole department all at once, but they ended up with a pilot program focused on one division, intending to learn from the pilot and then use that with the department’s other divisions. After analyzing retirement eligibility, vacancies and the significance of various positions, they focused on the water and wastewater treatment functions, which included the lab on both processes, for the pilot program. They identified 12 priority positions, including wastewater treatment manager, environmental chemist and industrial technician, that they deemed as critical.
Amy Cohen Paul and Nancy Hetrick Management Partners surveyed the entire department to gather feedback on training and promotion opportunities and other perceptions. The consultants then interviewed employees in the priority positions and developed position profiles that included information on fulfilling job requirements, training, historical knowledge and contacts necessary to complete the job. They developed a profile for each position deemed critical.
“The profiles function as a repository of important information, as well as a resource for current and incoming staff,” Paul says. “We worked to identify the critical competencies – those skills and traits needed to succeed in each role – and created a template for acquiring those skills both internally and externally.”
Adds Hetrick: “After completing and reviewing the profiles, we conducted training on the tools and approaches of the succession planning program so the department could replicate this pilot effort in other divisions. Throughout the project, we worked with the Public Works team to get feedback and input from across the department.”
The priority wasn’t just to figure out how to achieve and maintain full staffing; it was also to go through processes and procedures to capture institutional knowledge and catalog our services and assets like hydrants, valves and pumps. It is a difficult process, especially in a city like Fort Lauderdale, which was built out in the 1970s without the benefit of a fully developed geographic information system (GIS). That means it’s especially difficult to lose employees who have been with the department for 30 years and know where all the valves are. As those people retire, the City will still lose some of that knowledge, but the City is purchasing a comprehensive asset management system to inventory their physical assets will help soften some of the blow.
The Public Works Department still has challenges even after completing the succession planning project. Leaders would like to improve their training budgets and schedules, and they will continue to send their employees to continuing education to get the licenses and certifications they’ll need. But the department now has a better understanding of where it is going and what leaders need to do to maintain and improve it.
“It helped to take the time to define our problems and explore possible approaches,” Berg says. “Launching it as a pilot in their most critical areas helped as well. It’s always easier to replicate successes at a small scale than tackle everything at once. In this case, it was better to narrow the scope and focus on a few positions where we had the most problems than try to do it all at once.”
Succession planning is essential to organizational health, and it’s not something leaders can achieve in their spare time. To succeed, it needs to be a priority. Managers can’t look at it as a project; it needs to be the way they do business, incorporating all the elements of it into recruitment and training. In addition, these are long-term strategies that demand ongoing effort and attention. Department officials need to be patient but also persistent about maintaining the effort and keeping their attention focused as they are running the organization.
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