Development and training are an important part of a public works agency's integrated succession planning program.
Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. Development and training are an important part of a public works agency's integrated succession planning program.
The succession planning processAn agency's succession plan is an ongoing process that calls for continual evaluation and adaptation.
Hy Pomerance The succession planning processAn agency's succession plan is an ongoing process that calls for continual evaluation and adaptation.

The most pressing issue facing public works departments is the shrinking pool of talent from which to draw the work-force of the future. National demographics and workforce trends have caused human resources (HR) professionals and public sector leaders to express anxiety about the challenges of succession planning. Several key factors make the issue of succession management especially critical over the next three to five years.

First is the looming departure of the large baby boomer segment from the work-force. Most agencies will experience a rash of retirements within the next three to five years. The baby boomer generation includes those born between the years of 1946 and 1964, the largest segment of the U.S. work-force. Census figures estimate that by 2010, the country will experience a labor shortage of 10 million people. This number alone points to the serious competition public agencies will face in recruiting, retaining, and developing the next generation.

Second, labor demand is expected to outpace supply dramatically over the next few years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in the public sector will increase 10% to 15% through 2010.

Third, demographics are undergoing a shift in gender and ethnic profiles. According to a 2002 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, the public sector will require increased bilingual training, language and communication training, diversity and inclusion training, and mandated sexual harassment training.


These drivers will require a systematic approach to planning and managing succession in public agencies. However, most agencies treat succession planning as an activity for the HR department. Executing an effective succession plan requires professional HR skills, but the development and sponsorship of a successful strategy depends upon a top-level commitment. Succession planning must be a strategic priority assigned to an organization's senior leaders.

How, then, does a public works department develop and implement a systematic approach to succession planning? A successful approach used by many organizations includes five major steps:

Step 1: Institutionalize the process and capture stakeholder input. This is perhaps the most difficult step of the succession planning process. It lays the groundwork for the entire program by gaining top management commitment, creating a cross-functional planning team, identifying the strategic goals and vision of the organization, and defining objectives for the succession management program. This effort requires developing a solid business case for succession planning using external and internal data to document the impending shortage of talent, how it will impact sustainability, and the need for resources.

Step 2: Assess organizational need. Once you have established a support network and core team, it is important to assess the existing state and long-term needs of the organization and to identify gaps. A review of current organizational demographic data, key work processes and associated positions, and the condition and availability of resources and systems will pinpoint areas susceptible to breakdown. Some questions to ask during the assessment phase include:

  • What is the average age and tenure of current employees?
  • Are new leaders being effectively identified and developed within the organization?
  • Which processes are most critical to organizational success?
  • What resources (maps, policy guides, instructions, training materials, etc.) are required to perform work? Are these items accessible and up to date?
  • No organization is static, and the current state of the organization will not necessarily predict its long-term sustainability. The current state may not be compatible with the long-term vision and projected service demands. Disparities in the work-force, processes, knowledge transfer systems, and other systems and resources will become apparent, helping to identify the long-term talent and core leadership competencies required to bridge the gaps.

    Step 3: Develop a succession planning model. This is the key activity that will help you prepare to respond to future challenges. As part of the model development phase you first should determine which employees or levels of employees will be involved in the program. This should include representatives from all stakeholder groups, including civil service, HR, employees, senior management, and unions.