Field Employees Education and Development Conference

Eric K. Dargan
Deputy Director, Public Works and Engineering
City of Houston, Texas
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

The City of Houston faces unique challenges as the fourth-largest city in the United States. One of the most challenging is the daily operation and maintenance of the city’s street, bridge, and stormwater infrastructure. The Department of Public Works and Engineering (PWE), Right-of-Way and Fleet Maintenance Division (ROWFM) is planning its first Field Employees Education and Development (FEED) Conference to meet the ongoing and growing need for a workforce capable of delivering these services using increasingly complex, modern technologies. The conference is scheduled for May 24, 2007 to coincide with APWA’s National Public Works Week.

The ROWFM Division is responsible for the safe operation of Houston’s streets, bridges, drainage ditches and storm sewers, as well as the maintenance of vehicles and equipment for sixteen city departments. A committee made up of mid-level supervisors and administrative staff has taken on the task of planning and developing the conference for approximately 500 field personnel which will be held at the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The main objective of the conference is to provide information to the employees on professional and personal development, to assist them in understanding the value of a “career” in public works, and to convey to them the important role they play in the overall operation of the Division, Department, and City.

Many young people are drawn to employment with the City to simply get a paycheck. Through this conference, the Division hopes to help these employees develop a better understanding of what the City offers in terms of benefits, long-term employment, and personal satisfaction. In today’s job marketplace, we cannot afford to spend months or years developing personnel only to have them leave because we stopped recruiting them as soon as they were hired. Every employee who attends the conference should feel as if he or she is being recruited for a new job. It is our task to define all of the Division’s job classifications up to a new level of performance. We can no longer look at a laborer as a laborer; all employees hired should have the ability to move up at least two levels. By increasing the “standards and expectations” for these entry-level positions, we can begin to build and retain a more valuable workforce.

The FEED Conference is set up to open with a motivational speaker and breakfast in the morning at 7:00 a.m. The group goes from there into one of two morning tracks: “More Than A Paycheck” – designed to give City employees a clear understanding of the benefits beyond the biweekly check, including pension, health, and deferred compensation packages and, over the course of a 25-year-career with the City, how these things can help employees maintain and increase financial and physical well-being; and “What Works at Work” – professional development with a focus on the basics, dressing for success, the importance of attitude, how to fill out an application, and creating successful résumés. A luncheon will follow with another speaker. The afternoon will have two more tracks: “Get A Life” – personal development that pays off in the workplace, learning to cope with anxiety and stress, developing anger management and communication skills, practicing dispute resolution, and understanding how to maximize health benef its; and “In and Out of the Right-of-Way” – a comprehensive look at all of the opportunities open to public works employees and how to take advantage of them.

Concurrently with the presentations, there will be booths in a vendor/services hall where representatives from local banks, credit unions, educational institutions, social services, and suppliers will be invited to have a presence and show how their offerings can benefit City employees. The conference committee has observed that employees are often distracted from work because of personal issues that they may lack the skills or understanding to handle well. The combination of track presentations and services exhibits is designed to help the participants begin to build the needed skills and increase their understanding—resulting in employees who can focus on the job at hand, and confident that they have the ability and support to tackle life’s problems as they arise.

The conference will close with comments by PWE Department Director Michael S. Marcotte, P.E., DEE, and ROWFM Division Deputy Director Eric K. Dargan. At that time, the participants will be presented with a Certificate of Completion and special recognition for selected participants.

The ultimate goal of the conference is to develop, retain and enrich public works employees. The City competes with the rest of the community for these workers. Through focusing our attention on their needs and helping them define and realize their aspirations, we believe we can be more competitive in attracting and retaining them over the long term. We are hopeful that transformed employees will know that they are valuable and an important part of the Division; consequently, they will enable the Right-of-Way and Fleet Maintenance Division to provide even better service to all the citizens of the City of Houston.

Eric Dargan can be reached at (713) 837-7502 or

More praise for “A View from the Top” (Congress ’06) “I attended the women in public works session [“A View from the Top”] in Kansas City and to be completely honest with you I only did so to support one of our Florida Chapter members, Mariana Llanso, who was participating as a panelist in the session.

“Well, I was sure surprised! I was very impressed with the quality of the speakers, and the issues discussed were both interesting and insightful. What struck me most was the openness and the honesty of each speaker, who came from different backgrounds and from all around the country. To hear them tell their stories of personal and professional challenges to a room full of complete strangers comprised of both men and women was not only refreshing but powerful. We boys could take a lesson...”

Mark Juliano Florida Chapter President