Career ladders

Jon Ruiz
Public Works Director
City of Ogden City, Utah

Developing a fair, easily administered and measurable job classification and promotion system is challenging for most local governments. Many public administrators work within a labyrinth of job descriptions, pay scales, pay steps, career fields, performance reviews and promotion standards that sometimes conflict, are redundant, or create inequities. Sometimes motivated employees stagnate while waiting for position vacancies that are unlikely to open because they are occupied by mediocre employees. Ogden City, Utah has attempted to address these problems within the Public Works Department by implementing a career ladder for field employees.

Ogden, a community of 77,000 people, is an older city experiencing the challenges arising from aging infrastructure, insufficient capital to complete needed projects, and a downtown area experiencing revitalization. Designated a Federal Enterprise Community, the City works with the federal government to capture funding for a variety of activities. Ogden is the governmental, cultural and social center of northern Utah. World-class outdoor recreation areas exist in the community's backyard.

Ogden hosted the Curling event for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and had two of the largest Olympic events in its foothills. The Super G and the Downhill skiing events were held at Snow Basin Ski Resort, located at the base of Mt. Ogden. Olympic requirements for additional infrastructure and services added to the challenges of Ogden's Public Works Department.

To meet such infrastructure needs, the Public Works Department requires high caliber employees with the knowledge, skills and motivation to provide excellent service to the community. The Public Works Career Ladder is one program that is helping to achieve this standard.

The Public Works Department consists of 150 employees, responsible for water treatment and distribution, sanitary sewer and stormwater collection, refuse collection and recycling, street maintenance, utility billing, fleet and communications management, engineering, capital projects planning and construction, facility maintenance, transportation and traffic engineering, and development review.

The Challenges of the Previous System
Prior to the implementation of the Career Ladder, numerous job descriptions existed for field employees, including Heavy Equipment Operator, Equipment Operator, Senior Maintenance Technician, Maintenance Technician, Filter Plant Operator, Sanitation Operator, and Water Collection Technician. Each job description had its own pay range, each with six pay steps for advancement. More skilled positions were paid within higher pay ranges. The difference in pay between each pay range is five percent. There is also a five percent difference between pay steps within a pay range. For example, a Range 30, Step 5 Heavy Equipment Operator makes five percent more money than a Range 28, Step 5 Equipment Operator. Similarly, a Range 30, Step 5 Heavy Equipment Operator makes five percent more money than a Range 30, Step 4 Heavy Equipment Operator.

Employees were able to advance step by step along their current pay range—generally an automatic annual increase for 98-plus percent of all employees—or by applying for and being selected for promotion to a vacant position at a higher pay range. Movement up an employee's current pay range was seldom as a result of demonstrating particular skills or knowledge, but instead as an annual pay increase for spending an additional year in the organization. After six years employees topped out, marking time until a vacancy in another pay range occurred or until they retired. Unfortunately, this stymied motivated employees who wanted to continually gather new knowledge and skills.

Another concern with the previous system was the perceived pay inequity between similar job descriptions. Eight years ago, the City hired a consulting firm to review all job descriptions. The purpose of the study was to develop a comprehensive list of job titles with corresponding pay scales. In theory, several of the field job descriptions differed in their requirements, and thus warranted a difference in pay scales, but in practice these differences were often more difficult to distinguish. For example, both a Maintenance Technician (Range 24) and a Senior Maintenance Technician (Range 28) on the streets crew tended to perform the same functions. The problem was that the Maintenance Technician was being paid less than the Senior Maintenance Technician for performing similar jobs.

Three years ago, a group of management and field employees from the Public Works and Human Resources Departments began building the framework of a Maintenance Professional Career Ladder. The team's objective was to develop a system that provided qualified employees an opportunity to advance and be compensated in accordance with demonstrated skills. The proposal required approval by the City Administration and City Council.

How the New Career Ladder Works
Eight job descriptions are included in the career ladder, each consisting of five ranges—Ranges 20, 24, 26, 28 and 30—rather than only one range for each job description. Each range continues to have six steps. Employees progress through the career ladder at their own pace as they become qualified at the next higher range. To become qualified, an employee is required to obtain various proficiencies and serve a minimum of time within a range. Employees are not required to progress to the next range, but those with the motivation to do so have an opportunity to increase their compensation as they acquire new skills, experience and knowledge.

The career ladder allows different employees to have the same job description but to be at different ranges. For example, two streets division employees may both be equipment operators but at different ranges. This allows an employee to enter the profession at a Range 24 and continue to advance within the same job description to a Range 30. This in contrast to entering the system at a Range 24 and waiting for successive promotion opportunities at higher ranges, which may or may not be within a job description. The City benefits by the increasing skills of the employee.

The career ladder program does allow employees to laterally transfer to other positions within the career ladder that becomes vacant. In other words, a streets division employee may want to request a lateral transfer to the sewer division as part of his/her career development plan or for personal reasons. If the employee is accepted by the gaining division, he/she will start at their current range and step. Once transferred, the employee is not eligible for promotion to the next range until they are fully qualified at their current and the next higher ranges.

Of concern to current employees was their status upon implementation of the new career ladder program. The decision was made to grandfather current employees by placing them on the career ladder at their current range and step. Before receiving any additional step increases within their current range, an employee must make progress towards achieving full qualification in their current range.

Employees advance to a higher range by demonstrating mastery of defined requirements within proficiencies. The career ladder consists of two types of proficiencies: common core, those that are mandatory for all employees in the career ladder program; and division specific-required, those that change depending upon an employee's work unit. For example, a streets division employee may be required to demonstrate skills in paving operations, while a sewer division employee is required to operate a video camera van. Figure 1 shows a portion of the career ladder for streets division employees.

Each proficiency includes specific and measurable criteria. For most, an employee must demonstrate knowledge or a skill, rather than "talk through it." This ensures that an employee understands and is able to apply the knowledge. There is significant difference between describing how to cut and finish grade with a grader and actually doing it. Figure 2 is an example of the Level III proficiencies for a backhoe.

The biggest challenge in implementing a system like this is the time needed to outline the proficiency requirements for each range by division, and to develop, in detail, the criteria for each proficiency. Many of our senior employees and field supervisors provided invaluable assistance with both tasks. They understand the level of skill and knowledge needed to be successful in the field.

A second challenge was ensuring that the requirements to advance between ranges were equitable between divisions. For example, the amount of "work" to achieve a Range 28 in the streets division needed to be similar to that required of somebody in the water division, even though the division-required proficiencies are different.

Obtaining City Council approval was not difficult once they understood the benefits and workings of the career ladder program. It was particularly important to articulate its added value to the citizens and employees because the program will, over time, cost more money. Whereas in the old system, employees could not advance to higher ranges without a vacancy, the new career ladder allows employees to receive higher compensation as they meet all the requirements of the next higher range. More employees will be compensated at higher ranges, creating a future increase in costs.

Lastly, some employees initially expressed concern for the program. For a few, the concept of a self-motivated system was antithetical to their preference for a seniority-driven system. Some feared favoritism, which we tried to minimize by clearly defining measurable proficiency criteria with specific subjective outcomes. Several expressed a concern that time will not be available to cross-train on equipment or attend training. However, we continue to find that employees motivated to advance find the opportunities to further their skills and knowledge, either on or off the job. We make equipment available during non-duty time, which helps alleviate some of the concerns.

The career ladder is a new way of doing business for Ogden City Public Works. We anticipate needing to continually review the program and make changes as issues arise. Although it has taken two years to fully put the program together, we cannot have anticipated every issue or concern.

The program is working. We are reducing redundancy, inequities and conflicts between similar job descriptions and pay scales. We anticipate a more highly-trained and competent work force, and opportunities have been created for motivated employees to get ahead without the need for a promotional vacancy. Employees are competing against themselves rather than scrapping for relatively few promotion opportunities. And financial rewards are available for those who want to put forth the effort.

The challenge for many of us is to create a work environment that enables and encourages our employees to realize their potential and value, personally and professionally, while providing excellent service to our communities. We believe that our career ladder program is one way of doing that.

Figure 1 — Streets Division Career Ladder Requirements for Range 28

Minimum Time in Grade as a Range 26 — 2 years

Mandatory Core Proficiencies

  • Customer Service Level II
  • Snow Operations Level II
  • Computer Level II
  • Current CPR & First Aid
  • Certification
  • Safety Level III
Streets Required Proficiencies
  • Snow Operations Level III
  • Forklift Certification
  • Emergency Operations Level II
  • Risk Management Level II
  • Loader Level II
  • Backhoe Level II
  • Dump Truck Level III
  • Grader Level II
  • Roller Level II
  • Screed Level II
  • Distributor Level II
Figure 2 — Level III Backhoe Proficiencies
  • Safely and correctly lay pipe with others in close proximity.
  • Dig around and under utilities without damaging utility lines.
  • Dig trench to exact grade without supervision. Dig to exact grade with both back and front buckets.
  • Dig slopes safely.
  • Work in close quarters.
  • Perform intricate functions.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of soils.
  • Have a minimum of 200 hours of backhoe operation.
Jon Ruiz, one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 2001, can be reached at 801-629-8981 or at