There's a kind of paternalism about public works. It's a lot like my father was—always supportive, always reliable. Like a water system or a highway, he wasn't flashy, but he was there every day. My brothers and I always knew he would provide us with everything we needed, if not everything we wanted. Luckily for him, we grew up and became independent and got our own families to support—he got a break from the constant dependency.
The public works industry never gets that break. Our public infrastructure is expected to be the strong, silent, fatherly type every day, forever. No vacations, no holidays, no sick days. And those who run these systems don't get much more of a break than the system itself. I know that most of you work much more than 40-hour, five-day weeks. When the phone rings at midnight and there's a problem, or when the elements threaten, you're off and running, just like my father was when we needed him.
A job like that can be stressful, but I know that most of you are like me—you love it. Sure, it sounds great to think about working your eight hours, then going home and never thinking about it again until you walk in the next morning. But how boring would that be? Where's the passion? The challenge of battling with a difficult problem—or a difficult child—is what makes things exciting. And the real difficult problems don't begin and end on a standard work-day schedule—they take commitment and someone who really cares.
The day will come, though, when you will take a different job or retire, and then where will your city's “children” be? Developing a plan to pass on what you know is important. Think of how many hours someone would have to spend to figure out some of the things you could tell them in 10 minutes. Leave a legacy of knowledge.
My father died in April after a several-year-long battle with dementia. His legacy is four sons who remember that we could always count on him to be there. Now we are trying to fill our father's shoes for our children, leaving our own legacy of trust; to a father it's the hardest but best job in the world. You may think you've got the hardest job on the planet keeping our infrastructure running—but if you think about all the people counting on you and how rewarding their trust can be, you might decide it's also the best.