By Andrew Warnes

Corporate America is now reporting its profits for 2010 and the results look extremely promising. Not only is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) above 12,000 for the first time since October 2006, the scale of the profits being reported by major US corporations are exceptionally high. Earnings per share ratios are the greatest reported in more than a decade. More than half of the S&P 500 companies have reported their profit increases for 2010 over 2009 and those increases are averaging an astounding 17 percent.

Many analysts attribute these stellar results to a combination of lean management during the Great Recession and a return to growth in the economy overall. During the recession companies learned to work smarter, focus upon revenue generating activities, and manage their resources more closely. The reawakening of corporate America has serious implications for the retention and acquisition of the most critical resource of all – human talent. To understand what the ramifications of an improving economy could be for human resources in the water and wastewater treatment industry we sought out the five individuals who best know our industry and asked them to share their insight and opinions.

Working as a recruiter in the water and wastewater treatment industry requires an exceptional talent for diplomacy, technical insight and networking. Because the industry tends to be tightly connected and most critical knowledge tends to be ’tribal’, spotting talent takes a keen eye and knowledge of how the business really works. Although many companies try to save costs by posting job opportunities online, the critical roles with serious implications for the future of a company are often hard to fill and involve time consuming research and networking. This is when a professional recruiter with industry savvy is most valuable. Not only do they have the network and contacts to get to the real talent – they can do so quickly and save employers a lot of time and money. A top-notch recruiter knows where the talent lies, if working cultures mesh and where potential confidentiality issues could kill an opportunity. Their jobs are often more of a triathalon instead of a sprint – the work is strenuous, brutally demanding, requires extensive on-the-job training, immense investments in time, and outstanding awareness of the obstacles ahead. They are not in the business for the short term – working through the various potential minefields (and working with so many different companies and industry sectors) gives water-focused recruiters a unique perspective on our industry.

Who are the ’Top Five’?

The most keyed-in recruiters focused upon the water and wastewater treatment industry.

  1. David Hilburn, Ogenos, Marietta, GA Tel: (678) 622-1079 E-mail: [email protected]
  2. Jim Ortman, WaterJobs, Modesto, CA Tel: (209) 529-5051 E-mail: [email protected]
  3. Lisa Sprowls, Recruiter Solutions International, Mentor, OH Tel: (440) 205-8280 E-mail: [email protected]
  4. Jeff Smith, Jeff Smith & Associates, East Sandwich, MA Tel: (978) 448-8080 E-mail: [email protected]
  5. Austin Meyermann,, Keymar, MD Tel: (240) 372-0682 E-mail: [email protected]

The impact of lean
Dave Hilburn, a sharp and gregarious West Point graduate, was quick to point out a phenomenon in water hiring that he has sensed unfolding over the past several years. Many companies have adopted the policy of having half the number of employees perform twice the workload without additional compensation or time off. As the economy improves, those employees that were brought on board at pay ranges lower than they were traditionally making due to the employment environment being a ’buyers market’ will begin acting on impulses to seek better employment elsewhere.” Jeff Smith echoes similar sentiments. According to Smith, “This, in my opinion, is a definite issue companies are beginning to face as the economy recovers. Employees who have been secure in their positions while others around them were affected by downsizing have been asked to take on additional responsibilities, work longer hours, and do more with less. They have definitely been feeling the stress and many feel underappreciated. Wage freezes have compounded the issue. With the economy recovering, many of these folks will look seriously at new opportunities where they feel they may be better appreciated Most often these will be people with high skill levels that are much in demand in the workplace.”

Lisa Sprowls, who is well known for her courtesy and her personal touch, also sensed the growing backlash against lean staffing and advises employers that “they need to look at the staff they have and do what is necessary to retain them. If they do not, this will negatively impact their bottom line should employees begin to leave.” Jim Ortman takes a more relaxed view, stating that, “the economy will take a number of years to get back to normal, so there will be no big bang (in job hopping) – there will be slow and deliberate growth.” Austin Meyermann commented that there should be no exodus of talent from the industry overall due to a backlash against lean, but within the industry, “people will be hired and some of the pressure will be taken off existing employees.”

One aspect of the market for water talent that we asked the recruiters about was if they sensed an impending ’baby boomer bulge’ of key talent (particularly technical talent with critical tribal knowledge and experience) that is about to retire. Is this going to change the game for industry employers? For the most part the experts felt that this was a myth and that there won’t be a looming scarcity of qualified technical talent in the foreseeable future. Companies appear to be flexible when it comes to bringing back retired personnel for consulting projects or to help train new team members. They also felt that too many people just don’t feel secure enough to retire right away – the trend is to stay in place longer and to consult after retirement either for the money or for the pleasure of staying involved. Meyermann seemed to sum it up for them all when he said, “I don’t see the supply of employees falling off the cliff.”

The role of talent management
If the upturn in the economy means that some talented employees are keen to find new opportunities where they feel more appreciated – what role will talent management and career path programs have to play? We asked the experts if companies today have been focused upon the management and career progression of the employees they have and the responses were surprising. Meyermann commented, “I don’t believe there is a lot of focus on developing employees right now unless the organization is in a very good cash position. Management is very focused upon overall management and not upon individuals.” Smith warns that employers occasionally get a chance to upgrade skill sets when an employee leaves, but that more often they end up hiring someone with less than they had before and have to invest time and money to get them up to speed and make them productive. Hilburn reports that many employers in the water industry don’t seem to be managing their talent closely these days and that employee/employer balance seems to be swinging back to a pre-recession alignment, although many business leaders and HR entities “have not come to the realization yet.” Sprowls believes that “companies need to have a succession plan in place and utilize the employees they have today”. She also offers the insightful observation that “many times our clients are asking for us to locate skilled, high quality workers that are currently employed. With the high unemployment rate, our clients also have access to high quality individuals that have been laid off due to no fault of their own. A strong talent management program can take advantage of these opportunities to bring in more technically sound employees who will be able to learn from existing engineering staff.”

Where’s the growth, now and in the future?
When asked which segments of the water and wastewater treatment industry appear to have weathered the recession well and seem to be poised for growth, each of the experts came back with a differing opinion. Sprowls reports that her company has been focusing upon manufacturers of municipal and industrial filtration systems for both domestic and export markets. Hilburn sees progress in AMI/AMR (automatic metering infrastructure / automatic meter reading) markets as well as a lot of movement in the oil and gas sectors. Smith advises that desalination is “definitely heating up” and that there seems to be much development of energy efficient technologies focused upon replacing or augmenting chemical treatment in the industrial and municipal markets. He sees finding alternatives to the high energy consumption of RO requiring talent and expertise, as do efforts to find cost effective water purification solutions for developing countries. Meyermann senses that positions focused upon revenue generation and process engineering seem to be doing fine, but privatization of public utilities is “particularly hot” at the moment. Ortman sees no particular segment that stands out, but does sense that companies or sectors that were already on a slippery slope before the recession are likely already gone and the rest will continue to cope month by month.

What employers want
Ortman, who is known for getting straight to the point, advises that even though each job is unique, there are still some basic employee characteristics that hiring managers seek. They want people who are truly interested in their job, their company and their industry. A bright and positive attitude is always welcome, as are realistic suggestions and a team player attitude. Smith adds that candidates who can speak the language of customers and who learned to do so via previous training and engineering experience are always in demand. “Communications skills and the ability to work cross-functionally,” says Smith, “are critical skills and qualities for both sales and non-sales positions.” Sprowls advises that prior industry experience and formal education (at least a Bachelors Degree) are minimum requirements these days and that candidates who have the ability to work directly with customers, solve their problems quickly and require minimal training are in demand. Hilburn thinks that each segment is unique, but that he sees opportunities for multifaceted candidates who can fill several talent gaps at once within lean organizations.

Since we asked the recruiters to summarize what employers want these days, it seemed fair to ask them if they had a sense of what hiring managers don’t want. The responses were quick and consistent…employers don’t want ’job hoppers’ who are unlikely to stick around. They don’t want hires that will require considerable training or who have been inconsistently employed in the past. And according to Ortman, they don’t want employees who are “not willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”

The takeaway for employers
Now that some light seems to be appearing at the end of the recessionary tunnel, the employees that you’ve kept aboard are going to start thinking about new opportunities – especially if you’ve become a leaner organization and have been asking them to do more with fewer resources and work harder for fewer rewards. If your key employees do decide to leave, you’re likely to have a hard time replacing them and improving upon the skill sets they represented. If you have not thought about it already, you should be considering retention and succession plans and gearing up for more proactive talent management. If you have not already identified who your key talent is and made plans for retaining them, you may be in for a rough ride in the years to come.

Even before any key employee decides to leave you should seriously consider retaining a top water industry recruiter. Sprowls sums up the role of a recruiter well: “A recruiter provides a very high value to organizations seeking individuals that they may not have access to in the industry. They are knowledgeable about the organizations and individuals that would fit their specific qualifications. They understand the needs of their client. Although unemployment is high, organizations are looking for those who are currently employed and doing a good job. They are the individuals qualified to meet the requirements to be successful in the position that is open. Recruiters have the ability to provide customized searches which directly target individuals that hiring managers or human resource departments are not able to.”

Meyermann adds that, “We know a lot of people. We understand whether or not a candidate and a company fit…culturally, etc. As brokers, we help the sides come together.” Hilburn makes extra effort to attend industry meetings and trade shows and feels that, “Recruiters who do their homework and make the effort to attend national water shows to meet decision makers, engineers and sales people are of great benefit to any water organization. A good recruiter who attends these events usually picks up knowledge after a few years of due diligence that is of extreme value to companies and to candidates.”

According to Smith, “Companies will always try to fill their open positions on their own. This has been particularly true given the high unemployment rate. However, when the positions they are trying to fill require very specific skills and expertise, the candidates they seek are not readily accessible to them. The best are likely employed, busy and not actively seeking new employment. With our knowledge of the industry and the extensive database of contacts we have developed, we have the ability to reach deep into the industry to identify those with the specific skills and expertise our clients require. And we can generally identify candidates in a shorter time-frame, thus enabling our clients to fill their needs sooner.”

Ortman, getting straight to the point as usual, sums it up by saying, “employers need to realize that experienced recruiters are one of the best and cheapest tools for them to use in order to assure their own long-term success.”

The takeaway for candidates
According to these experts, opportunities in the water and wastewater field have started to appear again. Many employers are still operating under the assumption that it’s a buyers market for talent these days, though this is likely to change. The fact of the matter is that truly driven, exceptional and talented employees are never easy to find. Much like a top recruiter can save a company both time and money trying to find good candidates, a good recruiter can also help guide you towards an exciting and rewarding new career.

Sprowls explains that “Recruiters are a value to job seekers because they are aware of positions that are available that are not being advertised. Recruiters are knowledgeable about positions that may be coming up in the future and are able to get a job seekers information into the company hands even before human resources are aware there is an open position.” As she points out, “Potential candidates need to adequately provide their information in a well-written resume. They can not portray themselves with a degree if they did not receive one and they should never try to mask dates of employment to decrease gaps in employment. The majority of companies now run background checks and falsification of a resume causes employers to question the candidates morals and ethics.”

Hilburn advises that, “Potential candidates should always be updating their skill sets and keeping their networking contacts up to date … and ever expanding. The methods of moving, purifying and utilizing water will continue to change, even if it appears only to be a slight change. Candidates of the 21st century will have to be multi-disciplined in order to recession proof their careers. Hiring managers will eventually come to see their people truly as human capital that needs to be managed and rewarded in proportion to their contributions – in order to maintain a steady workforce for any period of time.”

Meyermann carries the message a step further. “For employees, don’t be idle. Volunteer in water or start your own business. The larger the gap in your resume, the harder it will become to get employed. For hiring managers, take the time to understand the candidates’ real motivation. Are they desperate, short on cash, etc.? The best hires need to be on board because of the strategy and culture. Money is rarely a good motivator in the long term.”

Smith summed up the collective opinions and advice of our experts when he said, “The water industry is a good place to be today and will continue to be a strong industry in the years to come. Water isn’t getting better by itself. I believe we will see significant investments in the industry to fuel development of new technologies that will ultimately allow us to produce quality water faster and cheaper.”

About the author
Andrew Warnes, former Senior Product Manager and Senior Channel Manager for PRF (a GE / Pentair joint venture) received a Bachelor of Sciences Degree in national security policy from Ohio State University and is a former US Army Special Operations Team Chief. His areas of expertise include membrane applications for microbiological purification and regulatory compliance. Warnes is a former International Director of the WQA and serves as a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee. He can be contacted at (847) 274-0595 or [email protected].


Comments are closed.