Tapping the Gray Reserve

By: A Newly Minted Retiree

Most people reading this are currently working for an employer. Many have worked for several employers over their career. Some are no longer on any employers’ payroll. Most organizations, be they public or private, should outlast individuals’ terms of service with them. This presents the challenge to the organization of finding, training, and retaining new employees as experienced workers depart for other opportunities, including retirement.

Continual Change
Turnover in the workplace is nothing new. What is new is the pace at which it now occurs. Two generations ago, it was common to spend an entire career with a single company, utility, or municipality. Moving to pursue new positions was uncommon.

A job search often started with paying a print shop to produce a stack of updated resumes on high-quality paper, mailing them (with a stamp) to prospective employers that were found in career guides, printed newspapers, physical journal classifieds, or telephone books. Then you called a sympathetic personnel representative weekly to see if an in-person interview might be forthcoming.

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Compare that slow and expensive process to what technology has enabled today. The internet and networking, social or otherwise, present many varied opportunities to anyone seeking a vocation change. Push and pull motivations for a career change include dissatisfaction with a supervisor or management requirements, a better compensation package from competitors, simpler exchange of employers while working remotely, or the proliferation of immediate gratification among our younger factions.

Layer unanticipated pandemic pressures onto these other evolving tendencies and the resulting ripples in the workforce fabric compound and grow.

Meeting the Challenge
Proactive employers have systems and practices to capture the knowledge of departing workers that is essential for the continuity of business. This should apply to every branch in an organization, including operations, maintenance, technical support, and administration. It also should apply to public utilities, treatment facilities, and private employers.

Although some fine propriety packages for knowledge capture exist, a measure of dedication and consistency with everyday tools also work well for a facility. They include the following:

Create defined-term mentoring or partnering between someone leaving and a new hire or someone else moving up into a position.
Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on tailored use of equipment and systems.
Produce a library of short video clips for specific tasks.
Organize self-study presentations on specific topics that drill down from the big picture to specific areas of interest, viewable in small bites and on all shifts.
Compile a “Lessons Learned” file from operations and activities that produced examples of what not to do again.
Construct an in-house website to organize and store links to drawings, videos, photos, documents, SOPs, and most other resources.
As these components are developed and assembled into a comprehensive resource, ongoing dedication is necessary to keep the collection current and relevant.

Producing learning resources also does not guarantee that learning will occur. Remember the learning progression of reading, hearing, seeing, and doing. Unless new information is repeated and rehearsed, it will quickly fade and be lost.

Filling the Gaps
Ideally, all staff changes will be anticipated, and will be managed to retain the departing workers’ experience and preserve the organization’s body of knowledge.

All of us understand that this ideal is more of a concept than it is a routine occurrence. Therefore, temporary measures have become increasingly necessary to bridge staffing gaps until suitable talent is identified and hired.

Understanding Experience
A more subtle problem evolves as senior staff continue to depart and a backlog of unfilled positions eventually leads to having several new hires at once. The resulting unbalanced staff profile creates an organizational experience deficit. Suppose a small treatment facility is allowed a staff with 20 person-years of experience. Would a staff of 20 with one year of experience each outperform a staff having one person with eight years, two with four years, and four with one year? Probably not.

You could also picture this effect as a mass curve measured in person-years. The curve drops off steeply when an individual with 35 or 40 years departs, while regaining ground slowly as all those remaining accumulate experience one year at a time. Granted, this exercise assumes a linear accumulation of experience; the actual learning curve would be steeper in the early years, tapering off with smaller increments to the mature body of experience.

Repetition is essential to the mastery of work tasks. However, another important facet is firsthand experience with managing extreme events on short notice. Watching your influent pumps adjust for diurnal flow and wet well level variations provides a good feel for dry weather collection system behavior, but responding to 50-year events without flooding, equipment damage, or process annihilation is a different world of high stakes and high stress. Similarly, responding to a sewer collapse with blockage will test a utility’s response effectiveness much more than a preplanned cleaning or pipe replacement.

Tapping the Resources
What other resource could be useful for putting out fires while extending meaningful knowledge transfer? You may not have to look any further than your recent retirees. This could be tough if they are working for a competitor, left on poor terms, or are uninterested for other reasons. There are more than a few knowledge-hoarders who believe that keeping information locked up in their silos is a way to preserve their worth or status. It may be surprising, though, to find out just how many others would be willing to help. But you must ask them.

Asking for help is a difficult thing for many people to do. For some, it can be deep-seated; maybe all the way back to when admitting ignorance in grade school would earn some grins and smirks from others who did not know the answer either. Those experiences have kept many of us from fully benefitting in learning and work environments.

Embarrassment, undeserved feelings of inadequacy, fear of having to act upon a difficult answer, or fear of being perceived as dependent can hold a person back and rob them of something valuable that is theirs for the asking. But moving beyond these fears benefit all.

Being asked for help is a great compliment; it acknowledges for retirees that they have retained worth to their employer. It also empowers them to continue contributing to an organization they have spent a good chunk of their life building and maintaining.

Most people need to feel needed. Beyond the simple gratification and ego reinforcement, it strengthens their connectedness, which is necessary for emotional and physical health at any age. In contrast, social isolation is a factor for hastening mortality while inviting dementia along the way.

Monetary compensation almost never is the issue. If it were, those retirees would be part-time employees with the associated obligations and expectations. Compensation can take other forms besides the chance to participate and some genuine verbal appreciation. A hot beverage in the morning or a cold beverage in the afternoon is also appreciated, in addition to some news about the facility or the office. If your employer’s policies allow visitors, an onsite chat could be very welcome.

More than one retiree has remarked, “It was great getting back to the plant, but better yet when I could leave after only an hour.”

The people you approach may have been your subordinates, peers, or supervisors. Traces of that relationship will linger as you establish a different active/separated relationship. It might be a little awkward to start or it might not — that will depend on the individuals involved and what kind of history they have.

Some joking around can break the ice and make it comfortable to open up. You might have to endure a few Senior Tales, or stories that begin “I remember when…” or “Back in the day….” Do not wince; there is some useful information in those, too, and the context will make it more memorable.

Recognize also that their assistance takes the form of recollections and suggestions. They are no longer acting in a professional capacity even though they may still retain their licenses or certifications. Without the protection of an employers’ professional liability insurance, their advice is just that, advice for your consideration and use as you deem appropriate. It does not diminish the potential value of the advice.

A personal dedication to preserving the health of our water environment runs deep. The aggregation of efforts by individuals on a local level is what drives preservation and improvement both regionally and globally. That does not vaporize from a person upon transitioning employers or beginning retirement.

Parting Without Finality
It has been said that your relationship with someone does not simply end with their death. The interaction becomes remarkably one-sided, but you still have an emotional connection that will influence thoughts, behavior, and attitude displayed in other aspects of your life. Their wisdom and guidance endure within your engrams, just as yours have been — and will be — engrained within others.

So too, the relationships built with colleagues through the years do not come to an abrupt end on their retirement day. You might have tried to glean as much of their knowledge from them as possible before they left, but it is still not their life’s experience, and if you do not use what you have already learned from them it will fade away. Recognizing the knowledge gaps and seeking help from the living library of retiree experience helps yourself, your employer, and your retirees — a hat-trick win for the environment.

The author recently retired after working at a municipal utility for 30 years and as a consultant for another 8 years. He maintains a landline in case anyone might someday call with a question or a problem. If you’d like to contact him, you can email us at magazine@wef.org and we will pass along your messages.

Original Article can be found: https://www.waterenvironmenttechnology-digital.com/waterenvironmenttechnology/july_2021/MobilePagedArticle.action?articleId=1705964#articleId1705964