Communication in to Often Under-rated with Utilities
Communicating effectively in both written form and public speaking is critical for the success of the utility. I have been reading several books on leadership and communication remains an ongoing issue throughout. We see many schools trying to incorporate this into the engineering curriculum, but that leaves far too many outside the training “program.” The problem is that many people think they communicate well, when in fact they do not. Nothing is more of a reality check than college students, too many of which write in “text message form” as opposed to real written words. Presenting utility concepts and ideas to different audiences is an integral part of the profession and unfortunately the technical nature of many of our issues requires technical people to communicate concepts to non-technical audiences. This s far more difficult than it appears, which is part of why the message may be lost. .Knowing this fact, aspiring utility employees must become familiar with using visual aids and computer-based tools to convey the important design details, so that, the client, regulators, politicians, the public and even other engineers can envision what the final product will look like and evaluate their ability to successfully execute the project.
We tell our students that technical communication for civil engineers is essential to the profession and is a prerequisite for a successful engineering career. It assists in conveying information, serves as a thought process tool, and is arguably just as essential as excellent analytical or computational skills. For some, writing well comes naturally, for others, it can be a struggle. The difference can be experience, confidence, and proper planning. Planning makes writing easier. A good place to start would be to make an outline of topics to adequately cover the necessary content and in the appropriate order that allows the reader to follow along in a logical fashion. Of course too many of them resist outlines and read very little.
Reading and writing go hand in hand. If you read a lot, you have a better chance of being a good writer than those o do not. The saving grace of the vampire books, Hunger Games, Game of thrones and 50 Shades series is that someone is actually reading the books. That is a first step. Of course the news is another matter. History, of course no so much. For utility folks, it is technical materials that must be read, digested and conveyed to the ratepayers. People are naturally suspicious of those they cannot understand, a huge barrier for the industry to overcome. I remind our students than when the general public is asked what engineers do, more than half answer: drive trains. Wow. the disconnect!
It is important to avoid overly long documents with too much technical detail, jargon or specialized terms, distractions and tangents.The consequences of poor communications clearly justify the amount of time and effort required to write well because, for example, the written word in a document is permanent; therefore, the bad impression left with the reader of sloppy work can be extremely damaging. We need to engage the public in a positive way. Communication needs to be a more robust goal for all of us than it currently is to engender that needed support.
In looking at the issues within the water utility industry, I think the largest issue is the lack of education. The lack of education on the value of water creates a disconnect between the consumers and the suppliers. The result is devalued product, artificially low water rates, and discontentment as a consumer. The lack of education on water careers and the value of the workforce creates a gap in employees entering the workforce and having educational institutions teach the skills necessary for the new workforce. In order to create change and a lasting legacy, education and public interaction need to be a primary goal within the industry. Educating the entire populace is a grand idea, but it needs to be broken down to make a feasible plan.
I think the first step to making a dent in education is to start at home. We need the suppliers of water to understand the importance of what they do. Many times the utilities are too modest in looking at how they are benefiting society. Clean drinking water has substantially reduced infant mortality and sickness in our nation. The availability of clean water is critical to development of industry and for community growth. When the people within the industry remember they’re an important part in society, it carries over into how they value the work they do and how the work is presented to others.
What water operator goes into work and says, today I’ll save thousands of people from cholera by maintaining the disinfection system at the water treatment plant? To get this message across would require action from many different levels, but I think the best way would be to have operators give this feedback to trade journals, promote thank you notes from trade organizations that explicitly state some of the benefits that clean drinking water is providing, and encourage utility managers to promote the importance of the water system to their staff and utility boards. In general, the message needs to be conveyed to all those in the industry that we’re making a difference.
The enthusiasm for water work by those in the industry is one step to promoting additional water careers. Additional education and support is needed to develop a skilled workforce in the near future. As the baby-boom generation retires, skilled professionals in the water world will be in short supply. Efforts to promote water careers now are critical to ensure a prepared workforce.
Concrete methods to promote water careers include
1. Encourage local higher learning institutes to promote water education
2. Engage in support of curriculum development.
3. Market existing tools and resources such as Work for Water.org.
4. Establish relationships with career development agencies.
5. Confirm career exploration programs include water careers
6. Promote internships and engagement opportunities for youth should be developed to promote further growth of the industry.
7. Develop youth education programs that promote the water industry
These steps help create an atmosphere open to water careers and support to develop a technically competent workforce for the water industry.
Finally, is the large task of improving the general understanding of the water supply and the value of water. Water users tend to under value the water supply they receive. Public officials are reluctant to raise water rates, even when doing so is necessary to meet the long-term needs of the water system. As an industry we have left marketing to the individual water utilities; however, this isn’t working to create a unified voice and reach the public. Marketing experts should be employed across the industry to evaluate the best methods and messages to help convey the value of water to the end users.
Educated rate payers are needed to help support the needed rate increases for infrastructure improvements. Also, education can promote common sense practices for source water protection. Both of these items rely on the support of many people and can only be adequately completed through education.
Investing in education for the water industry is critical to the immediate and long-term advancement of the industry. An engaged workforce makes for an improved message. An educational system ready for teaching the skill sets needed and an environment that fosters water careers results in a workforce that can meet the future needs of the industry. Consumers that know where their water is from, what it takes to make it safe, and the value of clean water will be more engaged in making sure the water system continues to operate at its best potential. No one else will promote our industry for us, so it needs to be taken as an initiative.