Stormwater foreman Shane Hill (white hard hat) blazes the trail as the crew performs a prescribed burn as part of Lenexa’s vegetative management program.
City of Lenexa, Kan. Stormwater foreman Shane Hill (white hard hat) blazes the trail as the crew performs a prescribed burn as part of Lenexa’s vegetative management program.

Five years after accepting an entry-level position at the City of Lenexa, Kan., streets department, Shane Hill had a higher-level job in another public works division. He assumed he’d reached a plateau.

“I figured I’d stay at Level 2 indefinitely,” says Hill, who’s worked for the city of 52,000 for 10 years. “For me to move up again, someone would have to leave.”

He moved up much sooner, though, thanks to a system that gives all operations and maintenance employees equal opportunity for advancement.

Under the Career Matrix Program, Hill was promoted to the Level 3 position of stormwater maintenance and also was named foreman over a crew of four. An additional 45 to 50 employees have moved up the ranks since the program was introduced five years ago.

Each maintenance and technician position is available at three levels of competency (see sidebar). The program clearly outlines the knowledge, computer and equipment skills, technical training, and certifications required for each Level 1, 2, and 3 position. In addition to giving employees more control over their professional growth, it’s designed to fill all but entry-level positions from within the organization.

Chuck Williams brought the concept with him when he joined Lenexa as municipal services director in 2010. He came from the slightly larger City of Manhattan, Kan., which had a system for promoting maintenance workers to Level 2 jobs.

“Lenexa is a progressive, employee-focused organization,” he says. “The human resources director was very supportive of adopting a similar plan and said, ‘Why not take it to Level 3?’”

With an eye toward his own personal succession plan, Williams hired Nick Arena from Manhattan, where he was Public Works Management Assistant, as his deputy. Together, they started hammering out career paths and training resources for 65 employees.

Nurturing in-house talent

“Ideally, when a supervisor leaves, multiple people are trained to step in,” says Williams.

That wasn’t the case when Hill’s boss, Stormwater Superintendent Ted Semadeni, was moving up the ladder.

“There was only one Level 3 maintenance worker per crew,” he says. “You had to apply and interview along with other employees in addition to impressing someone with your work abilities.”

Now that requirements are clearly defined, employees know exactly what they need to do to move up a level.

“It’s up to the employee to put in the effort,” says Arena, who became head of public works in March shortly after Williams retired. “We’d love to have everyone at Level 3.”

Employees must meet criteria that include two years in their current position. Before, they usually waited much longer for a vacancy to open up.

“The matrix is designed for promotion within their classification,” says Williams. “There’s a significant difference in pay levels, so they’re advancing professionally and economically.”

The program’s helped build leadership skills and team spirit by:

· Giving Level 3 employees the chance to oversee crews when the foreman is away, thus gaining supervisory experience
· Encouraging team members to help others advance because they’re not competing for the same position
· Distinguishing between employees who sincerely want to improve from those who just want more money
· Evening the playing field by making it difficult for supervisors to promote less-qualified favorites
· Discouraging those who don’t move up from blaming managers or the system.

“We tell candidates we have a way for them to advance their careers that completely depends on skills and ability,” says Semadeni.

Paying for workforce development

The first challenge in organizing the program was paying the higher salaries that come with promotions.

“In 2011, we were still in recession; but we had buy-in from human resources, city administration, and the governing body to do what it took to make the program work,” says Williams.

One funding source was normal attrition. During the economic downturn, employees who left weren’t replaced and money from those salaries was directed toward the program.

“After that, we put it into the budget year to year,” Williams says. “Also, when possible we moved savings from other department activities.”

The balance sheet is favorably tipped by improved productivity and employee retention.

Training, cross-training, and mentoring

“It’s much easier as a manager to pull up a checklist and say, ‘we need to teach you to do this,’” says Semadeni.

How the Career Matrix Program works

As they put together the City of Lenexa, Kan., Career Matrix Program, former Municipal Services Director Chuck Williams and current Director Nick Arena asked employees to help define Level 2 and Level 3 advancement criteria for six positions:

· Street maintenance
· Stormwater maintenance
· Fleet technician
· Traffic sign maintenance
· Traffic signal technician
· Facilities technician

Employees become eligible for promotion after a minimum of 24 months continuous tenure at their current level, provided they’re not on probation. They must have their supervisor’s recommendation and no “needs improvement” rating on their last evaluation.

Candidates must demonstrate the required equipment skills, technical knowledge, and computer proficiency and obtain applicable certifications. Requisite education includes National Incident Management System (NIMS) and in-house equipment training.

In addition to demonstrating advanced knowledge of processes and equipment and the ability to train others, Level 3 candidates must take at least five leadership and supervisor training classes such as the American Public Works Association’s Public Works Institute, pollution prevention training conducted internally, and join a committee or task force.

Training is provided to develop the technical and management skills needed to move to the next level.

For management courses, employees are invited to scout options in addition to attending the Public Works Institute conducted by the Kansas City Metro chapter of American Public Works Association, one of 19 such programs nationwide. Semadeni, a certified public manager (CPM) through the University of Kansas Public Management Center in Lawrence, also teaches a coaching class.

Most technical training is conducted in-house by foremen and seasoned Level 3 technicians.

“We looked into external sources for technical training but found our internal knowledge to be of more value,” says Semadeni. “You always learn as you go.”

The stormwater department, for example, has separate maintenance crews for “green” and “gray” infrastructure. It’s moving toward becoming a single team in which any crew member can repair a storm drain one day and stabilize a stream bank the next.

To meet that goal, the “green” crew compiled a plant identification guide to help those learning vegetation management and developed criteria for assessing the ability to distinguish between native plants and invasive weeds. On-the-job training for “gray” crew members includes tasks ranging from pipe, culvert, and ditch maintenance to televising buried assets.

The program supports cross-training and lateral moves because, says Semadeni, “qualifications are very similar at each level in all the municipal services.”

Shane Hill is a case in point. He learned to identify weeds and propagate plants from another Level 2 employee and became the first of the “green” crew to qualify for Level 3.

But there were no hard feelings. For the colleague who’d taught him, it was just a matter of time.