Standing out from the crowd
Charles Jordan graduated from the University of North Florida with a masters of public administration (MPA), but he still looked for something to set him apart from others in the world of public works.
In his seven years as a facilities manager in Largo, Fla., he has grown to appreciate the wide scope of responsibilities of public works professionals, and he wants to broaden his education to focus on local government operations and, especially, public works.
“My training had been on boards and finance,” he says of his MPA, “but not on areas of public works. I wanted to gain substantial knowledge on all aspects of local government and learn how an operation runs, from the frontline to the supervisor.”
As the field of public works and utilities grows in complexity and scope, more rising leaders, like Jordan, are pursuing additional training to go beyond the traditional technical skills required to maintain roads and manage other critical functions.
Through their associations and specialized university programs, local government leaders can today pursue certificates in specific fields like utility management, formalized credentials as a public works executive and intensive instruction through a leadership academy.
Setting career and technical paths
“We have a vision of public works as a profession,” says Mary Joyce Ivers, fleet and facilities manager in Ventura, Calif., and a member of the professional development committee of the American Public Works Association (APWA). “We want a professional career path as well as a technical career path.”
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The normal path of advancement in many communities to the top of a public works department leaves many managers without training, in areas beyond the scope of the skills they need to perform the technical aspects of management, says Larry Frevert, past president of APWA of Kansas City, Mo.
“We tend to look at the rank and file and see who is doing the best job and kick that person upstairs to supervisor,” he says. “But they aren’t prepared for all that the job entails. They never got the background for supervisory leadership. We need to provide training so they can be the best that they can be.”
There is a need to respond to the aging of the profession, says Peter King, executive director of APWA. His organization, which has 28,500 members, has offices in Washington and Kansas City, Mo. “We have to make sure that the leadership of the future has the skills necessary to do the job,” he says.
National associations are stepping up to broaden their educational programming to offer curriculum to build leadership skills that often are difficult to develop on the job. For example, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), based in Denver, provides a variety of programs on all phases of management for its membership, which includes many engineers and operators who require continuing education to maintain their state licenses. It also offers another series of classes on technical and management challenges facing the industry.
Cynthia Lane, director of engineering and technical services for AWWA, says her organization has developed a “suite of options” to promote professional education in the water utility industry. “The need is quite tremendous,” she says, “and multi-layered.”
“We are seeing managers asked to do more with less,” Lane says. “They’ve always been seen as working within the utility. But more and more they are asked to get out and speak, have a public face. It’s a challenge for them and we provide that training.”
In addition, AWWA offers an online Utility Management Certificate, a 55-hour, peer-designed program that focuses on management training, specifically in operating utilities. It includes such classes as:
• Management Styles
• Physical Infrastructure Management
• Water Supplies & Demand Management
• Establishing Leadership in the Organization
• Planning the Utility
• Building the Utility
• Financing the Utility
“This is geared more for the front-line employees, who are looking to move up into management,” she says. “Utilities invest a great deal into their employees, and they want to see growth.”
AWWA has also added courses on general management training to its already comprehensive curriculum of online and conference training on subjects as diverse as water treatment, utility finance and regulatory issues. These new courses are focused on training new managers or improving current management knowledge.
“We continue to evolve while the world is spinning,” she says. “We see the industry changing, and to be current, we have to be relevant to the world today.”
Teaching leadership skills
Taking a comprehensive approach, APWA has developed a credentialing program for current public works employees and others who want to specialize in the field. Donal Hartman manages the New England APWA chapter’s Institute that offers a broad range of training on all aspects of public works leadership. He also taught public works at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. (See sidebar, page 18).
The Institute and 16 other chapter-run programs were developed with the national APWA and offer 90 hours of instruction over two-to-three years. The instruction delves into subjects beyond the more technical classes, such as fleet management. Attendees who complete the program receive a certificate. “They teach skills in management and leadership and how to use leadership.” Hartman says.
Edward Gottko, the current president of APWA, says that public works leaders saw a need for higher-level coursework, with public works performance in mind.
“There were not a lot of specific programs for public works people,” he says. “There was training in the basic functioning of public works, like clearing snow, water, sewer and road maintenance. But we’re in a dynamic economy,” he continues. “We wanted to be sure that our profession keeps up with change. A public works director is not just in charge of fixing potholes. There’s a very important management role, too.”
According to APWA, its chapters’ Public Works Institutes, such as the public service education of the Illinois and Michigan chapters’ Institutes, and other programs help first-line supervisors, as well as managers and leaders who are looking to improve their knowledge and skills.
APWA has created a credentialing program through the APWA Donald C. Stone (DCS) Center for Leadership Excellence that incorporates the instruction at the Institutes and additional work with mentors to gain relevant public works experience to earn designations of Public Works Supervisor (PWS), Public Works Manager (PWM) and Public Works Executive (PWE). As a senior service designation, the Public Works Leadership Fellow (PWLF) is given to experienced public works professionals who agree to mentor professionals seeking credentials.
Jordan, whose previous MPA work allowed him to enter the executive program, gained the highest professional designation, PWE, after completing a major project under the supervision of a mentor and defending it in a simulated town council meeting.
The Institutes cover 11 core units, although each chapter can emphasize different elements of each of the units. Some of the topics in the leadership unit, for example, include Team Development, Ethics, Defining Excellence, Developing a Personal Leadership Strategy, Embracing and Executing Change and Creating a Learning Organization.
“This was an idea that primarily sought to help people who want to improve themselves for their career,” Ivers says. “It was a way of using classes and mentors to move up in the profession. It makes people more marketable and qualified.”
Taking the academy approach
One path to gain leadership skills is through APWA’s Emerging Leadership Academy, which is a 10-month program that provides intensive leadership and management training within the context of public works. Many agencies and organizations recognize the importance of professional leadership training when hiring and promoting managers and supervisors.
The Academy’s intensive training in core leadership and management skills also prepares individuals for leadership in the broader profession.
“It’s team building, negotiating, media training to become leaders in the public works profession,” says Susan Hann, city manager of Palm Bay, Fla., who leads the academy.
Hann worked her way through the public works ranks, primarily as a traffic expert, and has been the city manager of Palm Bay for the last two years.
Through a rigorous selection process, the program identifies candidates who have worked in the field of public works for less than 10 years, but who have received strong endorsements from their employers. Employers must commit to allowing participants to devote a substantial amount of time to the program during the year.
Each class consists of 16-20 individuals who participate in monthly calls, attend a two-day training session in Kansas City, and complete required class assignments. They also complete a class project, which is presented at the annual convention.
Hann says the program is designed to develop leaders not only for their organizations, but for the profession as a whole. “We talk about what it means to go to DC, to talk to their representatives,” she says. “They develop strong relationships with their class and with their mentors.”
The program allows the participants to find their own leadership style. “We expose them to different ways of thinking,” she says. “They look at what went bad and what went well. They learn to customize their style to their community.”
Most importantly, Hann says, they learn that leadership is a process that develops over time. “You can’t give someone a leadership book and say, ‘OK, now you have what you need,’” she says. “You have to develop your own leadership style and make corrections as you go.”
Training in technical skills
While the public works profession is devoting significant resources to developing its new leaders, it is also seeking to maintain its expertise in specific skill areas.
APWA offers three certification designations, earned through education, work experience and testing: Certified Public Infrastructure Inspection (CPII), Certified Public Fleet Professional (CPFP) and Certified Stormwater Manager (CSM). Certified professionals must continue their professional development by earning continuing education units and must be recertified every five years.
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King says the thrust of the training regimen is to develop a source for the body of knowledge that up-to-date public works professionals need to do their jobs at the highest level and to lay down a clear path for those who want to make public works their career.
“Methods, tools, knowledge, across all of the areas,” he says. “We want to establish the standard operating procedures, not just focus in one area,” he says.
In the future, the association plans to offer a credentialing program for professionals, such as planners, scientists, engineers and consultants, who do not work for government agencies but want training in specific aspects of public works operations that they encounter in their own work, often side-by-side with the government public works leader.
King concedes that the association still must work to gain general recognition among employers of the value of the accreditation program, for the initiative to succeed. “We need to build demand for the credentials,” he says. “We will be going to our past presidents advisory group to come up with a plan to sell the credentials’ value to human resources and government agencies.”
As a graduate of the credentialing program, Jordan says he is committed to a career in public works because of its unique relationship with the public.
“Public works affects everyone,” he says. “You are doing things for the city on a day-to-day basis. Other areas, like police, are only serving best when you don’t need them. Public works is serving best when you do need the service day-to-day.”
He says the process of obtaining the executive credential was helpful. “We did a 360-degree evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of my management style — co-workers, supervisors, subordinates, myself.”
From that process, he and his mentor created a professional development plan that established goals and set regular benchmarks to gauge his progress. His capstone project on fleet management allowed him to delve more deeply into areas of the operation that he had not previously encountered and build relationships with workers whom he had not known well.
All the hard work has paid off for him, including added responsibilities at his current employer, he says. “It’s opened a lot more doors that were not open because of my administration background,” he says. “It has added clout. I feel much more well-rounded, that I’m more of a management professional as well. It will be extremely invaluable in the next few years.”