Desert Water Agency (DWA) has about 23,000 domestic water connections that serve approximately 89,000 people (including seasonal residents) in the vicinity of Palm Springs, California. Like all municipal water agencies, it has numerous specialized and highly qualified staff members with the institutional knowledge that comes from many years of service. This means that succession planning is a must: When it comes time to replace longtime supervisors or other high-level employees, the agency must find an equally highly qualified replacement, preferably from its own ranks.
In this interview, DWA Human Resources (HR) Director Kris Hopping tells Municipal Water Leader about the agency’s supervisor training and succession planning activities, as well as its response to the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Kris Hopping: I’ve been in HR for about 23 years. The vast majority of my experience has been in the water industry. I was at Coachella Valley Water District for 19 years, and I’ve been in this position at DWA now for just over 2 years. I have a degree in human resources management from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about DWA.
Kris Hopping: DWA was founded as a groundwater management agency in the western Coachella Valley in 1961, and started providing water service to customers in Palm Springs and Cathedral City in 1968. DWA is one of only 29 state water contractors in California. This gives our agency the ability to import water, which is used to recharge our groundwater basin, the main source of water in our desert.
DWA is a special government district. It provides groundwater management, drinking water, recycled water, and conservation resources, and in parts of Cathedral City it provides sewer service. We have 85 employees and 5 board members.
Municipal Water Leader: What does your role as HR director entail?
Kris Hopping: I’m an HR department of one, so I am a generalist. I do all the employee hiring, recruitment, interviewing, and employee relations. DWA is not unionized, but we have an employee association. We do negotiations every 3 years. Most of my work involves employee relations, managing benefits, working with our safety staff on workers’ compensation, and managing deferred compensation.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about DWA’s organizational development programs.
Kris Hopping: We didn’t have a formalized training program until I came on board. We’ve started a program to encourage our employees to get ready for promotion to help us grow as an agency. Traditionally, we’ve only promoted from within, which is great because it gives our employees opportunities for growth but doesn’t cause too much change within the organization. We’ve been encouraging employees to take supervisory preparation courses in addition to the water distribution and water treatment exams that are required for supervisory-level positions. We have also expanded our educational reimbursement program to encourage employees to advance their careers.
Municipal Water Leader: Where do DWA employees take those supervisory preparation courses?
Kris Hopping: We’ve brought in some experts to conduct in-house water distribution and water treatment training sessions. Employees also attend courses offered in the Palm Springs area or online. A lot of the courses for current supervisors have been held onsite. People are excited to attend courses when they occur during regular working hours.
Previously, we didn’t do a lot of training, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. I’m really pleased with how well it’s gone over. People have been asking for new classes and suggesting topics.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you plan to continue this program into the future?
Kris Hopping: Yes. I’ve increased the training budget each year, because I think that preparing people for growth is the most important thing you can do to help your organization thrive. The biggest obstacle to growth in any organization is change. If you don’t have people ready to step in and help with the change, you’re going to get resistance.
Municipal Water Leader: Is training for new technologies a big part of this as well?
Kris Hopping: Yes, and I’ve also been impressed with how excited people are about the new things we’ve brought in. We went from having supervisors enter the information from paper time cards into Excel to using a new timekeeping and HR information system that allows employees to enter their time sheets, request time off, do their evaluations, and record classes they’ve taken, all online. That technology has proven to be even more valuable amid the COVID‑19 pandemic, which has required us to adjust work schedules and allow people who are normally in the office to work remotely. All the things we’ve done to improve our technology have made it possible for us to continue functioning as an organization. I don’t know how we’d be handling the time sheet system if we were still using paper.
Municipal Water Leader: What percentage of your employees do you think have taken part in these training courses?
Kris Hopping: All our supervisors—24 employees—have attended the classes we’ve held on site. As for nonsupervisory employees, it varies by department. We had 20 percent of employees take a course on customer relations—not on how to give better customer service, because our employees don’t have a problem with that, but on how not to feel like you’re getting beaten up by customers, which can happen sometimes. Another 20 percent of our employees have attended water treatment and distribution prep courses, and 50 percent of our accounting staff have earned a certification in accounting from a local university. All our engineering staff have been taking classes. Over the last 2 years, we’ve gone from 10–15 employees a year getting a new certification to at least twice that many.
Municipal Water Leader: How did you go about identifying course offerings that would be appropriate for your district?
Kris Hopping: First, I asked the superintendent of our construction department, our operations and engineering manager, and our water operations supervisor what classes they thought their employees needed. Then we reached out to the employees and asked whether these classes would be helpful. I’ve gotten most of my ideas about what to offer from the employees. At that point, I did research into course offerings, asked other agencies what they’d done, and searched online.
We started offering a few classes, and at first I didn’t get a huge response. The first time I did a distribution prep class, only 10–15 people attended, but they liked it and spread the word. I started getting calls asking for additional classes. Our operations department brought in an electronics trainer to give its staff a special training that normally requires a full week in Phoenix. We also partnered with another local agency, the one I used to work for—I knew that it did some of the same type of work—and it sent a couple of employees to the class as well. For other classes, we have invited staff from other agencies to attend, particularly from smaller agencies that may not be able to afford in-house trainings. They have been excited about the opportunity and grateful for the offer.
Municipal Water Leader: Have you done safety training as well?
Kris Hopping: Yes. Our facilities and safety officer handles most safety training matters, and we work in partnership. I had an employee request confined entry training, so I worked with the facilities and safety officer to add a training program on that. We also hold a monthly safety meeting attended by all employees at which we focus on one safety topic. Our biggest issue in the summer is heat safety, which can be an issue even for employees who are used to our extreme temperatures. Temperatures in Palm Springs can exceed 120 degrees during July and August.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your succession planning activities?
Kris Hopping: Positions like construction superintendent, assistant construction superintendent, or water operations supervisor require specific certifications, and it is important for us to have employees who have obtained those levels of certification and education so that they can step in if and when a supervisor decides to retire. Most of our turnover is caused by retirement. At one point, we had someone retire with very little notice, which was kind of scary. That motivated us to be more proactive. If you don’t have somebody who could step into the role if somebody were to get hit by a bus today, then your agency could have a problem tomorrow.
I always tell employees not to wait until the position is posted or your supervisor announces their retirement, because at that point, it’s much too late. We want to make sure we have a plan in place for succession. It’s great when supervisors pick somebody they think would be great to fill their role so that we can start training that person early. We wanted to make sure we were addressing this on an ongoing basis, so we started doing employee evaluations every 6 months at which we assign goals and tasks to make sure that our employees are on track. We can assign them courses on specific skills or on preparing to be a supervisor.
Municipal Water Leader: It sounds like you still try to hire primarily from within when it comes to supervisory roles. Is that correct?
Kris Hopping: Correct. The exception is when we create an entirely new or specialized position. It’s preferable to hire from within because you can observe your employees’ skills and encourage them to grow in certain directions. They’re known quantities; you know how good they are at their jobs, not just how well they can interview. If you have a great employee, you can always train them in new skill areas.
Municipal Water Leader: What do outgoing employees need to do to ensure a smooth transition when they leave?
Kris Hopping: Writing down and documenting standard operating procedures is a must. When an employee has worked in a position for 20–25 years, they have a lot of specialized knowledge. Transferring that knowledge is hugely important. That might involve developing a manual, creating maps, or writing explanations of certain decisions. We don’t want that knowledge to only be in someone’s head. If a 30‑year employee retires, we lose 30 years of knowledge unless we have taken the time to properly document it.
When our finance director retired, we were fortunate enough to have a long transition period, which we took advantage of to write down this kind of information. We recorded what he did at different times of year, the processes for doing certain tasks, and what information needs to be prepped for meetings with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System or other agencies. Those are the kind of things that longtime employees know because they’ve done them for so long but that an outsider would know nothing about.
Municipal Water Leader: How has your department been reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, and what are some of the steps you’ve taken?
Kris Hopping: It’s changing almost daily. We were a little overwhelmed at first by all the information we were receiving and how rapidly we were receiving it. Then we took a step back and started determining the absolute minimum staffing levels we would need in the office and in the field, what our technology would allow, and what kinds of preparation we would need to do for remote work. Then we worked with our employees to figure out how we could rotate staff, assign work remotely, and make sure that work was getting done. We also set up an online training program we have access to through a benefits broker and started assigning employees courses on Excel, safety, or customer service that they could complete from home. At least once a week, we check in with our supervisors to see how everything’s going and what needs to change. I think we’re on our third iteration of our guidelines on who can work from home and for how many days. Our employees have been good about realizing that this is a weird time and maintaining their flexibility when we need to make adjustments.
I think the most important thing we’ve done is to involve our board of directors in every change to make sure that they’re okay with what we’re doing and that our general manager is able to make the necessary changes. The board has been really supportive of what we’re doing.
Our general manager is putting safety first and practicing what he preaches. We bought face masks for our employees and require them to wear them whenever they’re at work, even in the office. We created handwashing stations at the entrances to the building. We gave everybody the cleaning supplies they needed and issued directives on how to make sure that their offices were clean. We put in place a new office-cleaning protocol and are now having the offices sanitized every night. We’re trying hard to drill into our employees that even if they feel fine, we need to act like somebody here is sick so that we all take the correct precautions. Our benefits brokers and attorneys are providing us with one or two webinars a day on new regulations. We’re giving all the information we can to our supervisors and staff. We’ve also developed a frequently asked questions sheet covering topics like what to do if you feel sick and how to handle working from home. We’re bombarding people with information—I’d rather them have too much information than say that nobody is talking to them. We’re also making sure that employees know that even if they’re working from home, we care about them. We check in with them every day to make sure that they’re feeling good and that they don’t have any questions. We rolled out a new employee assistance program in September, and we’re reminding people about it. There is an online counseling component that may be helpful if employees feel isolated and need to talk to somebody.
Municipal Water Leader: Was there anything else you wanted to touch on?
Kris Hopping: We, as an industry, need to get out there and try to attract younger employees. I think stability and benefits will help attract new recruits, but I also think that our response to this crisis can be a selling point. I’ve seen a lot of people on the forums I use saying that when they interview for a new job, the first question they’ll ask will be, “What did you do for your employees during COVID‑19?” If we have a story of success and support to tell, that’ll help us with our future recruitment and succession planning activities.