Nov 04, 2016

The Experienced Crowd

Encouraging younger employees to develop their water quality knowledge

In September, I had the opportunity to attend the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) Leadership Conference in Newport, R.I. I really like this event, maybe even more than the annual convention. At the WQA Convention & Exposition, I usually have a booth and several presentation responsibilities, so the days are long and the schedule is packed. Conversations with friends and colleagues often are cut short because the schedule is tight or my booth is sitting empty.

At the annual convention, there are more people and a larger selection of learning opportunities to choose from, so I am by no means discouraging attendance (in 2017 it will be held March 28 to 31 in Orlando, Fla.). It is an incredible experience and an amazing way to rejuvenate your industry enthusiasm or stay up to date on industry trends and products.

But the Leadership Conference is more intimate. There are far fewer attendees and no exhibition hall. Most of the attendees are owners and managers, and the atmosphere is more casual. This year, I engaged with people who have been the leaders of the water quality industry for much of the nearly two decades I have been a part of it. There was so much experience at the event that it would be impossible not to learn something.

But then it hit me. Here was a gathering of mostly experienced people. I do not want to be offensive in my terminology here, so let’s just say that some of us are very experienced. So experienced, in fact, that many of us may be starting to consider retirement.

This prompted me to think about the annual convention, and who was in attendance there. While there may have been more younger attendees, I am pretty sure the main demographics were similar to those of the Leadership Conference.

I was not the only one who noticed this, and several committee meetings I attended at the Leadership Conference included attracting millennial talent on the agenda.

Our industry is going to face some significant challenges if we do not find a way to bring younger generations into the fold. The world is changing. The way consumers make purchasing decisions is different, and a company’s products or services can be made or broken via social media. Although those of us who have been around for a while know how to do a lot, we are not always the best at embracing new technology.

Take, for example, WQA’s Modular Education Program (MEP), which is now the only way to get WQA certification. There are many reasons we need something like the MEP in the industry (and I won’t go into all of them here, as I could write a whole column on that topic alone) and on paper, the MEP makes perfect sense. But the challenge of not having experienced young adults in our industry is highlighted in the challenges of this program.

One of the most impressive and necessary components of the MEP is mentoring. In theory, someone who has been in the industry for a long time should be a mentor and should guide a new person through the program. This allows a new person to learn basic water treatment fundamentals as well as the specific applications, policies and procedures of a dealership. But often, the person with the most experience is older and less computer literate. Add to this that the mentor is usually in a position that requires him or her to wear multiple hats, and the result is a frustrated younger employee who wants to earn his or her certification but who has a teacher who sometimes does not have the time to learn what at first glance can be intimidating subject matter. (I should mention here that WQA has made resources for learning the MEP available, including live and recorded classes for mentors.)

Working With Millennials

As industry leaders, we can do a better job of teaching each other how to use the programs and about social media, but we also need to attract a younger generation to carry the industry into the future.

If you are an owner or manager, I strongly recommend finding a way to get younger employees involved in the next WQA or regional convention. The more they know, the more they will be able teach you and the employees who come after them.

I recognize the challenges associated with this suggestion. It is expensive to attend these meetings, especially for a small business. And there has to be someone left behind to man the shop. But you should find a way, even if it means sending only one or two of your newer employees at a time.

One of the reasons I hear from owners for not taking younger or newer staff members to the conventions is that they fear other companies will try to recruit them. Recruiting is difficult, and I understand this fear, but I would suggest that not allowing one of your employees the opportunity to grow or learn in the industry may be doing more to encourage them to leave your company than anything your competitor might offer. Millennials are not always motivated by money. They often approach life and a job with an expectation that they will be far greater than their predecessors. If they feel their path to this greatness is being hampered, they may seek an opportunity they feel allows them to reach their full potential. The reality is that in many cases, and with guidance, the confidence, enthusiasm and desire to be part of something special can do wonders for your company and, by extension, our industry.

As a fairly “experienced” person myself, I do not know that I have the answers to fix this. But I do recognize the need to address the problem sooner rather than later. I believe we work in one of the most critical industries in the world and have a responsibility to pass on our knowledge and experience while embracing new ideas. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that doing so could have life or death impacts around the globe.

So let’s put our gray and bald heads together with our less experienced colleagues and figure out how to pass the baton to future generations.

About the author

Kelly R. Thompson is president of Moti-Vitality LLC. Thompson can be reached at [email protected].

expand_less