A major flood event helped demonstrate the value of having a public works team that was cross-trained and certified. The City of Edmond, Oklahoma saved at least $170,000 in a single event by utilizing in-house talent to do what would have previously required the hiring of contractors. In the early years of launching a cross-training program for their Public Works Field Services department, the city was rewarded for their investment.
“We got 11 inches of rain in less than an hour. We lost sewer lines. We lost all kinds of things,” said Keith Stewart, Field Services Superintendent at the City of Edmond. “Typically, what the city would have done was hire contractors to come in and repair all of that stuff, but because our employees were properly trained and were confident in their ability, the work was completed in-house. After our employees had gone through the training, they had that confidence to do the work themselves.”
In 2006, the City of Edmond Public Works department went through some reorganization, bringing together the street maintenance, waterline maintenance, and wastewater line maintenance employees and forming a single team, Field Services. In searching for some cross-training materials, then Public Works Training Coordinator, Johnny Carter, discovered that no training materials existed. Ultimately, the city partnered with the Francis Tuttle Technology Center to develop a curriculum and conduct the training.
“We handed them what must have been an eight-inch-thick book of all the tasks that Field Services employees perform, and Francis Tuttle developed the curriculum,” said Stewart.
The city also built a training facility complete with all of the relevant infrastructure including water lines, wastewater lines, streets, and sidewalks.
In 2009, the city grew their program into a Registered Apprenticeship program that was approved by the Department of Labor, creating the first journeyman program in the nation for field services professionals in public works. The apprenticeship program includes street, water line and wastewater line maintenance. Employees who complete the program are certified in all three disciplines. The program takes four and a half years to complete.
To encourage employees to undergo the training, the city created a skill-based pay program. For completing training and demonstrating proficiency in a series of skill sets, employees earn higher salaries. This brought the department in line with what other disciplines were already doing around various state and nationally recognized certifications.
“We really don’t think, in the past, that this particular work group has gotten the respect that they deserve. What we wanted to do, ultimately, was to elevate the professionalism of what we do,” said Stewart.
In addition to rewarding employees for their accomplishments through higher pay, the department has also improved employee recruitment and retention by providing staff with clear pathways for advancement from entry-level Trainee positions through Technician to Journeyman and Specialist positions.
In the nine years since the Registered Apprenticeship was implemented, 30 employees have completed the process and earned their journeyman certification through the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). There are about 30 employees who are in various stages of earning that distinction, currently.
The cross-trained team has also proven to be efficient and productive, keeping the number of new positions that were added to a minimum as the municipality has grown over the last decade.
Cost savings from the program come from more than reduced reliance on contractors and controlled team growth. The program has also directly correlated with reduced tort claims and workers’ compensation claims because the team is working more safely.
While launching the program required a significant investment, Stewart says the program faced few challenges.
“Fortunately, we had great support from our city management and our city council,” said Stewart.
In hindsight, Stewart says they should have waited to roll out the program until all of the curricula were completely developed. Initially, they had some employees who had to wait to complete their training and achieve their certification, which delayed their pay increases.
And, initially, there was resistance from some of the incumbent employees who resented having to take training for a job they had been doing for decades.
“As a matter of fact, we had some of our harshest critics—some of those employees that had been here for a long time—actually come to us and say, ‘You know what? I didn’t think you would teach me anything, but you actually taught me some things that have really benefited me out in the field,’ and so that was a great moment for us, realizing that even some of our harshest critics were benefiting from the training,” said Stewart.
Municipalities interested in creating a similar apprenticeship program can get a jump start by utilizing the City of Edmond’s program as a starting point. This program is listed among the USDOL database of apprenticeships available across the country under the “Maintenance Tech Municipal” Occupation. The standards for this apprenticeship may be viewed here. The Midwest Transportation Workforce Center is currently working with stakeholders across the state of Wisconsin to develop an apprenticeship in Highway Maintenance for which the City of Edmond’s program will form the basis.
An official partnership between the City of Edmond and Francis Tuttle has resulted in the creation of the Center for Municipal Excellence. The center now offers their training program for a fee to other municipalities from across the state. After several years, the center is close to its goal of being self-funding.
For more information on the City of Edmond Public Works Field Services apprenticeship program, contact Keith Stewart at Keith.Stewart@edmondok.com.