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Developing New Talent in Public Works

Dorothy Johnson is a legislative analyst for the League and can be reached at djohnson@cacities.org.

Plaques, speeches and potluck luncheons are among the usual preparations that department staff makes for a director retiring from a municipal department. But with the upswing of Baby Boomers approaching retirement, other preparations are needed to replace the expertise and institutional knowledge that often leaves with department supervisors.

For some cities, it means bringing back a retired director from another city to fill in during the interim until a permanent replacement is hired. For some individuals, it means delaying retirement --- sometimes by a year or two --- until a qualified person is found to fill the vacancy.

Two cities are using creative solutions to ensure a long line of succession in the fields of engineering, transportation and public works. The City of San Leandro has implemented an internship and mentoring program to bring in new talent, and the City of South Gate works with the talent already within the department.

San Leandro Mentors Young Minds

San Leandro Engineering and Transportation Department Director Uche Udemezue explains the problem he encounters when seeking new candidates for his department: "In the past, when we sought applications we would get 100 or more responses. In the past five or six years, we’re lucky to get 10."

Udemezue attributes the problem largely to two factors. First, there simply aren’t enough candidates. Second, cities are competing not only with each other but also with private companies looking for the best and brightest in the field.

Another problem his department faces occurs when the three junior levels in the department bottleneck at the level of associate engineers, just as staff is acquiring licenses and moving toward greater responsibility. In addition, according to Udemezue, the pool of engineering majors in colleges nationwide is shrinking.

He also notes that, further compounding the small pool of candidates, many students who enter college or university intending to study civil engineering change their majors because they are not prepared for the required course work or don’t really understand a civil engineer’s job responsibilities.

"This country has trillions of dollars in unmet infrastructure needs, and if we don’t have engineers, who will be building those roads and bridges?" asks Udemezue.

To meet the growing need for civil engineers, Udemezue and his colleagues developed a multi-level mentoring program that works with potential and current civil engineering students as early as junior high school and follows them through their higher education studies --- for some, all the way to a full-time position with the city. "We currently have four internships with college students, and two former interns are now working for the city," he notes.

The idea originally came to Udemezue through his work on the American Public Works Association Diversity Committee, where he learned surprising statistics about university-level students that could help turn around the shrinking candidate pool. According to Udemezue, women comprise 60 percent of university students, but only 20 percent of engineering majors. Minority groups’ representation in engineering is even smaller. Udemezue explains, "If you want the best and the brightest, you need to pursue them. We need to make engineering interesting
for everyone."

To do this, the department created a hybrid position between the junior/assistant level and more senior, associate level of engineers. This enables the city to train these employees and help them grow into the associate level, learning the profession and acquiring institutional knowledge of the city as they progress.

In addition, the Engineering and Transportation Department offers an internship program to university students during the summer, which gives the student interns a competitive work force advantage by the time they complete their college studies. "If you’ve been an intern each summer, by the time you graduate you already have a year’s experience," Udemezue says. Such former interns are more competitive candidates who receive better job offers.

The city reaps the benefits, too, which ultimately was a big reason to start such a program. Udemezue says that training junior-level staff for future leadership roles and bringing back interns mean those individuals stay on board for a long time, sometimes up to eight years.

But the program needed to expand still further, so the department staff worked on reaching out to local junior high and high schools. They visit classrooms to give students an overview of engineering and its different fields and explain which courses students need to take in high school so they are prepared for college-level classes. Udemezue always makes sure to take a current or former intern to speak to the younger students. "They need someone who can appeal to the young ones," he points out. It’s also an excellent opportunity to encourage students to apply for internships with the city.

The schools, students and the city have responded positively. Udemezue says he knew the program was a success when he saw how quickly participating college students are able to get a job after graduation --- not just in San Leandro, but also in neighboring San Francisco Bay Area cities. Former interns are also more likely to return to the city after college because of their experience, rather than go to a private firm. Udemezue says one former mentoring program participant is now an assistant with San Leandro but has already acquired the knowledge of an associate. It’s great for her and also saving significant money for the department. "One student was already designing streets right out of college, whereas other engineers wouldn’t generally have that experience for three more years," explains Udemezue.

The biggest challenge for Udemezue and his department was bringing the city manager on board and demonstrating that the program is well planned and offers benefits both for the city and those in the mentoring program. Another challenge is that the students have to stay engaged in learning without creating too much extra work for department staff, so finding the right balance of education and creating a work product is crucial.

For cities looking to start similar pro grams, Udemezue recommends thoughtful planning, persistent outreach and faith in the students. Looking at the big picture, he says, "We try to advance the students’ pride, city pride and city engineering."

South Gate Focuses on Developing Employees

The City of South Gate Public Works Department recognizes the challenges when trying to fill an empty seat left by a supervisor. Promoting junior-level staff may involve a steep learning curve and create another vacancy for the department to fill.

Along with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, the Pasadena Public Works Department and Pasadena Water and Power, the City of South Gate is working with Citrus College, a local community college, as an employer partner. The goal is to create an opportunity through the Incumbent Worker Training Program to upgrade the skills of staff already working for the city.

For municipal public works employers, Citrus College offers classes to prepare maintenance workers for advancement into positions such as crew leaders, supervisors and superintendents. Best of all, these programs are either offered at the employer sites or students are able to participate in online courses. Employers help by providing time off to attend classes.

Through the program, employers are able to choose public works classes that they identify as professional development opportunities for their employees, which can help a worker earn a certificate of achievement in public works or water technology from Citrus College. Public works classes focus on a wide variety of maintenance-related topics, including soils, trenching and grading, concrete structures, tree care, public administration, traffic controls, plan interpretation and cost estimating. Water-related classes address industry standards in treatment and distribution as well as cross-connection control.

In addition to the courses for public works employees, Citrus College is collaborating with local high schools to offer a career exploration class, which includes a three-week emphasis on public works. The curriculum covers projects and workplace learning and is designed to recruit entry-level workers so that the current staff is able to move up into supervisory positions.

Employees benefit by earning college credits and working toward their public works certificate or associate degree, which prepares them to be better candidates for the next promotion. For employers, the program provides a better trained work force with a broader knowledge base and skill level so that they can proceed with succession planning and veteran administrators can retire.

For more information about San Leandro’s program, contact: Uche Udemezue, director, Department of Engineering and Transportation; e-mail: UUdemezue@ci.san-leandro.ca.us. For more information about South Gate’s program, contact: David Torres, field operations manager; e-mail: dtorres@sogate.org.