How Attending an APWA Workshop Saved Our City $1M

As management teams work on their budgets over the next few weeks, some might look at trimming expenses by cutting back on staff training. But my experience has been that a little bit of education can go a long way. Come, travel down memory lane with me, and I will show you how one workshop ended up saving our city $1,000,000 . . .

Many years ago, our city, like most, had meter readers who would travel from home to home or business to business reading the water meters. The meter reads were entered into a book; then office staff would transcribe these reads from the book into the computer. From there, water bills would be generated and sent out to users.

Eventually, the water industry began to offer products designed to automate this meter reading process. Through a long and involved journey, our city arrived, poised to implement a major change in our system involving water meter replacements and installation of an automatic meter reading system. The company offering our city the package quoted a price tag close to $2,000,000. Unfortunately, I was concerned that our city would not be able to afford this, and we would have to cut back and eliminate the portion of the package involving a fixed network system and instead choose a drive-by read system that the company quoted at $1,500,000.

During the time period in which our city was considering this company’s proposal, I attended a workshop hosted by the American Public Works Association (APWA) to learn about their accreditation program. One of the side benefits of these workshops is the chance to meet and talk with others involved in public works. So at the morning break, I had the chance to meet and visit with the person sitting next to me, Kevin Weaver, from Oakwood, Ohio. Oakwood was a city similar in size to LaSalle, and Kevin was their city engineer. We discussed the projects going on in our communities, and Kevin told me how his city was going through a water meter replacement project involving the installation of a fixed network. I told him how I wanted to implement something similar in our city, but told him I didn’t think we could afford the $2,000,000 cost. Well, imagine my surprise when Kevin told me his community was only paying about $900,000.

Kevin went on to explain how he had approached the bidding and implementation of his project. But with two cities of almost exactly the same size and number of meters, I still could not understand why our quoted price was so much more. Fortunately Kevin followed up after the workshop by sending me the bidding information so that I could try to figure out where the cost difference was.

At that point I shared this information with our council, and they approved allowing the project to be split into three contracts: one for supplying meters, one for supplying the fixed network components, and one for installation. Then, after getting cost proposals for each, we arrived at a project expense very close to that of Oakwood’s, about $1,000,000.

My cost to attend the workshop and conference that immediately followed was about $2,000. So for $2,000, not only was I able to gain experience and training, but because of meeting Kevin, I was able to find a way to implement the project we wanted at half the cost, saving $1,000,000.


JISC Releases Serious Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds are still fairly new to most, and many still view them as games. But there is a growing realization that virtual worlds can offer real value to businesses, government agencies, and educational institutions. A report recently released by JISC presents a comprehensive study of how virtual worlds are being used to enhance learning and training in many industries and institutions. Serious Virtual Worlds presents background information, case studies, glossary, and other resources offering a good read for anyone who has wondered about just what is seriously going on at the moment in virtual worlds.


Losing Your Creativity

A couple weeks ago, I attended a meeting with our local business association to hear and participate in a discussion about tax increment financing districts (TIFs). Our TIF attorney made a comment at the meeting something to the effect that “infrastructure is not sexy.” At the time, I interjected my disagreement with his assessment; everyone laughed, and I really didn’t think much more about it until later.

But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that the general public would probably agree with our TIF attorney. Why is that? There was a time when people were impressed by the achievements of engineers and public works employees. Our contributions to bettering the lives of people were welcomed and appreciated. Now what we achieve seems to be taken for granted, dismissed, ignored, or worse yet criticized. Only within the confines of our own professional groups are these achievements awarded.

But most of us are not working each day trying to win an award or mass recognition for our designs or projects. So why should this change in attitude concern the average public works person?

The critical issue here is that this change in attitude seems to be leading to a complete dismissal of our profession as one that requires creativity in order to deliver a quality product. I realize that even amongst ourselves this may not be apparent because we really do not talk about ourselves or our profession as one that relies on creativity. But each day we face problems that rarely have obvious solutions, and the way we solve them is to tap into our creative abilities to assess situations, many times “think outside of the box,” and then derive the most efficient, acceptable, and cost effective solution that works. And we do this without even thinking about how we do it.

So if we are automatically doing this, why should we be worried about how others view us and our work? Because at one time, when the general public was still awed by our achievements, we were left alone to create, solve problems, and produce. As the world has progressed, this is no longer the case – the companies and agencies for which we work have made changes to staffing and policies that are now stifling the creativity on which we rely.

We now have supervisors who are not trained in our field and don’t understand the thought processes and work environments we need in order to achieve success. With fewer employees in our divisions and groups, we are pushed to achieve more in a shorter amount of time. Politicians often do not heed advice from professionals and experts in a certain field which leads to an imposition of policies and regulations that simply do not work.

I suppose there may still be a lucky few who have not had to experience these types of changes, but from what I can see and from the conversations I have with other professionals, there does not seem to be many of the lucky ones. Instead I hear of engineers who are having to “clock in and out” in a manner similar to that of a factory worker because some accountant for some government agency has decided that the employee might spend an extra 5 minutes or so at lunch.

For myself, I don’t have that problem, but I do have coworkers who are not in the public works department who simply cannot comprehend why I would need to work uninterrupted on anything. And they are unrelenting in their criticism should I try to just shut the door or not answer the phone for any time period at all.

So what is the result of these changes? I see and hear about designs and projects that no longer are the best or most efficient or even well thought out. This obviously leads to, at the least, increased construction costs and a waste of resources, and, at the worst, failures and a potential for loss of lives.

I agree that we as a nation need to invest more in infrastructure, and I think the average citizen would agree, but more importantly, should this funding one day arrive, we need to spend it wisely by coming up with the best designs. And this is only going to happen if we invest in our own creativity despite the obstacles trying to diminish this vital ability.

Next post – Finding your creativity.


Control the Snow – Part 2

Continuing on with a synopsis of a few of the sessions I recently attended at the APWA Snow Show held in April of this year in Louisville, Kentucky:

One of the great benefits of attending a conference is the chance to find out what is new in our industry from others who are already using these tools and products. For me, some of the products I discovered at the show were the APWA training DVDs covering snow control and removal. Although I had previously seen these discs at past shows, I never really knew much about the product. A disc sitting on a shelf does little to convey the content within, and I had never really seen anything offering more information about the DVDs.

Fortunately one of the sessions I attended presented in detail how the training videos were developed, showed examples of the content, and then demonstrated the ease of use and interactive interface.

Mark DeVries from McHenry County Division of Transportation and Steve Gannon with GanTek Multimedia discussed how an APWA snow and ice committee met in January 2006 to help develop the products with funding from Clear Roads. AASHTO is managing the computer based training project.

The Winter Maintenance CBT Suite is made up of the following topics:
– Equipment Maintenance (released July 2007)
– Proper Plowing Techniques (released Sept. 2007)
– Deicing (soon to be released)
– Blowing Snow Mitigation (released March 2008)
– Winter Maintenance Management (scheduled for release in June 2008)

Each DVD covers one topic and can be set up by an organization to be available for their entire staff to use at their own pace. After finishing each DVD and successfully passing, each member of the staff receives a certificate of completion.

Without having seen the demo given at the session, I would have never realized how professionally done, interactive, and easy to use these training DVDs really were. Training is important for our industry as older and more experienced workers retire and more regulations and rules add to the knowledge base required for us to perform our job. And now in today’s world, the need to conserve energy and decrease trips adds to the benefit of CBT products. It definitely is a product that my department can make good use of.

More information about the training videos can be found by clicking here.