How Operators and Engineers Can Work Better Together: A Utility Director’s Perspective Donna Kaluzniak Anyone who has worked in the water and wastewater business for any length of time knows there is often friction between engineers and operators. This conflict stems from fundamental differences in each group’s job tasks, as well as their approaches to solving problems. And, it is often worsened by poor communication and preconceived opinions. Whatever the reasons, tension or even hostility between the two groups leads to inefficiency and can mean poor-performing projects, safety issues, and wasted dollars, not to mention work-
place stress and headaches. So, how can operators and engineers work together in harmony? As a former utility director who worked in the water and wastewater fields for over 35 years, I’ve developed some insight into the factors that cause this friction, the results of tension between the two groups, and ideas for how engineers and operators can work together, creating a better outcome for all. I recently conducted an informal survey of operators and engineers through LinkedIn to gather additional information and opinions on this topic. While the response to the survey was not large (32 respondents), the answers were interesting and useful. Respondents included engineers, operators, managers, and one scientist, and seven respondents were both engineers and operators. Survey responses have been incorporated into this article.
Does Friction Really Exist? An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of those surveyed said they had personally observed friction between engineers and operators. From my own experience—starting as a wastewater treatment plant operator trainee in 1979 and working up to the position of utility director—I’ve had firsthand experience of listening to complaints from both operators and engineers about one another. The problem doesn’t really get much attention, but perhaps it should. As a manager, I learned to have the utmost respect and appreciation for both the engineers and operators I
May 2016 • Florida Water Resources Journal
worked with. I depended greatly on both groups to do their jobs well so we could all protect public health and the environment.
Sources of Friction The reasons for disharmony between operators and engineers vary, but recurrent themes appeared in the survey, as well as through my personal experience. Theoretical Versus Practical Experience Part of this issue stems from each group’s way of working and thinking. Engineers typically work and think conceptually, whereas operators are hands-on. While operators must take coursework and pass examinations to become licensed, much of their training is on the job, where practical field experience comprises the majority of the operator’s knowledge. Engineers rely on their training and experience as well, though much of their education is based on theory, calculations, formulas, and models. There seems to be a lack of mutual respect and appreciation for these different points of view, though both are critically important to a successful project. Several survey respondents noted that engineers often discount operators’ hands-on knowledge, while operators see engineers as “textbook people” with no real-world experience. Another dichotomy is that some engineers may be more forward-thinking and apt to use newer technology, while some operators may have Continued on page 50
Operations and Utility Management - Florida Water Resources Conference Issue