Looking up from Down Under

Jim Close
Director of Public Works
City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
APWA Jennings Randolph Fellow

It is interesting how far away we must travel to see what is near-at-hand. Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania and is situated between Gettysburg and Hershey, Pennsylvania. It is surprising how many Central Pennsylvanians have never been to the battlefield or toured the famous chocolate factory, much less the eloquent state capitol building. Tourism is Pennsylvania's second largest industry, following agriculture.

  Opening Session at the 2007 IPWEA Conference, Cairns, Australia

This past August, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia, as a recipient of a 2007 Jennings Randolph Fellowship through APWA's International Affairs Committee and the Eisenhower Institute. While there I attended the International Public Works Conference in Cairns, Australia. The conference is held every two years through the efforts of the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA). The conference was everything Chris Champion, IPWEA Chief Executive Officer, said it would be in his February 2007 APWA Reporter article.

The theme of the conference was "Be Inspired" and that was easy to do with the timely technical sessions, informative vendors, and great networking with a real cross-section of public works professionals. There were approximately 600 attendees and about 40 international guests. Like our APWA Congresses, I truly felt I gained more public works knowledge in a few days than I could in months anywhere else.

Study Program
Besides attending an international conference, the second element of the Jennings Randolph Fellowship is the pursuit of a study program that is relevant with public works issues in the United States and/or Canada and the country to be visited. My study program was organic recycling.

  The Portsmith Waste-to-Compost Facility in Cairns, Australia

In many parts of the world, the largest segment of the waste stream consists of organic material, mainly paper products, yard trimmings and food scraps. This organic waste, meaning it contains carbon, can account for 40% to 60% of what goes into a landfill.

Organic material should be considered a feedstock and not a waste to be disposed in a landfill to create methane gas, which is three times more harmful to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. In 2003 the Recycled Organics Unit of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Sydney, Australia, under the direction of Mr. Angus Campbell, published a study entitled "Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Assessment for Window Composting Systems." That study confirmed that composting organic material from the municipal waste stream and using the compost in agriculture provided numerous environmental benefits, when compared to normal landfill disposal. These benefits included:

  • Improvement in global warming gas generation
  • Enhanced carbon sequestration
  • Soil structure improvement
  • Increased plant productivity
  • Reduced water and fertilizer use

Steve Mojo, Executive Director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, estimates the diversion of organics from landfills would reduce the production of global warming gases to the same extent as taking two million cars off the road annually. This statement certainly endorses the findings of the UNSW study.

City to Soil
In talking with Mr. Campbell at UNSW, I learned about a project in Queanbeyan, Australia, called City to Soil. Green waste is collected at curbside, after it has been separated in the household from other wastes. It is then processed into compost, which is sent to nearby farms as part of a cooperative agreement. The farmer saves by not purchasing commercial fertilizers, and the City Council saves on reduced landfill fees. The challenge to the program was to reduce contamination in the green waste bins. This was done through a direct information campaign and an attitude survey. After completing the survey, which was mostly positive, participants seemed to feel franchised by the program. Contamination was reduced to a more than acceptable level. The finished compost was considered a high-quality additive, which improved soil conditions and yields for the farmer.

In addition to its tangible benefits, the City to Soil program with its stakeholders approach has the goal to build social capital through "increased motivation and awareness of the real value of environmentally sustainable practices in a wider contest."

Australia is not only the smallest continent but also the flattest and the driest inhabitable continent. It is the sixth largest country in the world and, with its island state of Tasmania, is approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). The population is 21 million with over 60% living along the eastern coast. Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast; the western half of the continent is a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills near the west coast. The geography certainly does not seem to support much interest in composting, but there actually seems to be pockets of enthusiasm for organic recycling in all parts of the country.

So, world traveler, what about the lush farmlands of Pennsylvania, where agriculture is the number one industry? Pennsylvania also is a large importer of municipal waste from other states. That means there are hundreds of garbage trucks making round trips of 300 and 400 miles or more, hauling loads that are 60% or 70% organic matter past thousands of acres of farmland, whose soils could well utilize the carbon and nutrients in those trucks. It seems the geography in Pennsylvania, and much of the United States, favors composting. So why aren't we enthusiastic about it, like our friends Down Under?

Gradually we are waking up to the fact that we are losing important features of our landscape, losing the ability to produce food in close proximity to large population centers, and losing green space. Rather than moving towards greater energy efficiency, we are transporting food and trash over greater distances. We are using more and more fossil fuel to move around potential energy in the form of organic materials. It is not a very sustainable system.

We need to stop treating organics like a waste and start thinking of it as a resource, that we can recycle into energy via anaerobic digestion and into high-quality compost. There needs to be partnerships between the municipal and agricultural sectors that provide a viable and cost-effective alternative to landfilling. We have the supply. We need to create the demand through local market development. We need to close the loop and make that loop as small as possible. The smaller we make the loop the more efficient the system becomes in terms of energy, economy and environmental benefit.

Jim Close is a former member of the APWA Solid Waste Management Committee and received the Top Ten award in 2006. He can be reached at (717) 236-4802 or

Dynamic succession under the Australian sky

Keith Reester
Director of Public Works
City of Loveland, Colorado
APWA Jennings Randolph Fellow

Over the next 10 years both the United States and Australia face an impending crisis that will fundamentally change public works departments around the world. Just this month the first Baby Boomer filed for Social Security, just a sign of the times ahead. The Boomers, born 1945-1964, currently fill a majority of leadership positions in public works agencies throughout the western world; private firms serving the industry have similar trends. Organizations are already struggling with how to fill the void left behind by those riding into the sunset, but the organizations that strategically plan for the succession to the next generation of leaders will win the battle for talent and will be more productive over the next two decades.

Keith Reester (second from right) meets with staff at Pine Rivers Shire, Queensland. Pine Rivers has one of the leading graduate engineering development programs in Australia.

As part of the APWA/Eisenhower Institute's Jennings Randolph Fellowship, I recently traveled Australia for four weeks exploring the nuances of how the Australian public works profession is wrestling with this same topic, commonly called the Skills Shortage. The study effort included not only site visits with public- and private-sector leaders, visits with university engineering faculties and attendance at the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) Conference, but a parallel survey of professionals in both countries on the topic.

The study work revealed that Australian organizations are struggling with the issue on an even larger scale than here in the United States. Many organizations are working with vacant leadership and lower-level positions because there is a shortage of qualified individuals and intense competition from other sectors, notably mining. This situation has been compounded because in the 1980s Australia, like the U.S., experienced a massive decline in technical colleges and universities; thus the pipeline is dry as well.

A few facts to ponder:

  • In the United States the gap between the number of Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers is 10 million workers, regardless of industry; the ratio is similar "Down Under."

  • Very few organizations, both in the U.S. and Australia, invest in developmental programs for young professionals leaving development of both technical and "soft" skills to a haphazard hope for the future.

  • As a percentage of all university students, fewer young people are entering the engineering professions than at any time in recent history.

Survey Says!
As part of the study effort a parallel survey under the flag of APWA and IPWEA was launched earlier this year on the topic of succession planning. The full results and analysis of this data will be available through APWA and IPWEA in December. A few key themes readily appeared, but also showcased differences on the two continents.

  • In both the U.S. and Australia less than 7% of all agencies believe they are doing an excellent job developing successful future leaders in their organizations.

  • Over 52% of agencies identify themselves as having more than 50% of their senior managers due to retire in the next decade.

  • On the flip side less than 17% identified this looming crisis as a critical concern for their organization.

  • On the positive side the majority of organizations (79% AUS/72% US) state that their middle managers are beyond the 10-year window.

The Perception
The survey revealed a few interesting facets of our industry's self-perception of what is driving this issue and the obstacles in overcoming it, perceptions that:

  • Public agencies don't pay enough to attract and retain qualified talent.

  • It is cheaper to "poach" employees from other organizations than invest to grow your own.

  • Young people don't want the "battles" that go with the politics in top leadership positions.

  • Young people today are not as qualified as engineers were 30 years ago.

  • People view succession planning as "anointing" a future leader for a job; however, nothing could be further from the truth. It is about developing talented people and aiding them in developing the skills they will need to be successful in positions in the future.

  Keith Reester speaks at the IPWEA Conference in Cairns, Australia.

Trends Identified
Very few organizations have a clearly defined investment in building their future workforce. This was evidenced by the fact that fewer than 30% of respondents in both surveys indicated that current senior leaders have clearly defined critical competencies identified for their positions. In addition, fewer than 18% indicated that developmental assessments and plans have been developed for key personnel, both current and future leaders.

Why? The primary reason for not completing development skills assessment and planning for personnel was time; lack of organizational support ran a far second. What do these trends bring to light? Unless our industry invests its own time in making succession planning a priority, it will fail to get done.

The Lessons Learned
So even if you're lost when it comes to succession planning, in working with successful leaders in Australia (such as Wyndham Council) and their United States counterparts we can suggest some key lessons learned to begin. The old quote states that "The hardest step is beginning," and now is that time. Four key steps can be used to strategically plan for the future, and just like we would develop a scope and schedule for every other project we tackle, we must do that for succession planning as well.

1. Finding and Hiring Top Talent. Most organizations, both public and private, treat finding qualified candidates as an afterthought at best. The best organizations seek to constantly cull the market so that when they need candidates they are an employer of choice for which candidates are waiting for an opportunity to apply. For example, a recent survey showed that greater than 90% of all Generation X and Y candidates start and complete their entire job search online; however, many public organizations still invest most of their resources in print ads.

Sit down with your Human Resources staff and develop a strategic plan for seeking out candidates—it's a buyer's market for high-performing employees and it will only get worse. You need to be proactive. Survey your current employees you hired in the last five years and ask them questions like, "How did you hear about us?" "How would your friends look for a job?" and "Why did you choose to join our organization?"

2. Retaining and Developing High Performers. Most high performers leave organizations not over salary or work conditions, but because no one ever took the time to talk with them about their future in the organization. This issue will become more acute with Generations X and Y. These generations grew up in a time of watching their parents and relatives be laid off after years of service and loyalty rewarded with a pink slip; this skepticism frames their view of the workplace. From day one talk with employees about planning for development, write it down, and commit to it. Today's young developing professionals want a learning environment; when they stop learning they start looking.

3. Knowledge Transfer. When employees retire, years of institutional knowledge tend to walk out the door with them. Each organization needs to develop programs to capture and document this knowledge. This can be done in many ways including shoulder-to-shoulder project work and a systematic documentation of knowledge on certain sections of town. The time that an organization spends capturing that knowledge will be rewarded back several fold in the future when an issue arises.

4. Recycling the Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers love to work—that's a trademark of the generation. After retiring many get bored and begin looking for opportunities to contribute and ways to continue growing and participating. Innovative organizations are "recycling" Baby Boomers back into the workforce on a part-time or project basis. Most government organizations are better set up to handle part-timers; we've done it for years with seasonal employees and others. Find a good match, pay them a decent wage, and require them to spend 10% of their time mentoring young professionals. Organizations like Loveland, Colorado currently have 15% of their workforce as post-retirees. Recycling is a key practice in spanning the workforce gap and developing your team.

Much of this material is already available; organizations just need to commit to making it happen. The most innovative organizations in Australia and the United States are committing to the steps outlined above. The three biggest issues facing public works in Australia are asset management, global climate change, and the skills shortage. In American public works this last issue is barely on our radar screen. However, one key we can learn from our Aussie counterparts is to not wait to commit to successful succession planning. Even with the obstacles, starting now is better than waiting.

Keith Reester is the Treasurer of the APWA Colorado Chapter. He can be reached at (970) 962-2520 or