Thoughts on Career Development and Workplace Relationships

Picture of Ryan Hennessy
Ryan Hennessy

In this blog, we are going to deviate from the more technical aspects and more into what I hope are useful tools for career development and success. I have been “around the block” enough that I feel some of these thoughts may be useful to the up-and-coming generation of new wastewater professionals. This article will be written from the perspective of someone completely new to the wastewater industry, however it is likely these thoughts will also be applicable to experienced professionals as well. 

Prior to Applying

I highly recommend job shadowing at a plant prior to applying. This allows a general idea of the culture, what your job responsibilities may be, and if it is something that you want to be a part of. Often if you have a day of job-shadowing, you may be exposed to different people at the facility and you can get a feel for the personalities and the interaction between management and operational staff. Remember that employment is a two-way street and not only are they evaluating you, but you should also be evaluating what you see in them, and whether it would be a good fit. Fortunately, at the time of this writing (October 2023) there is a major shortage of operational staff, and the tables are tilted to be selective in which endeavors you want to pursue.  If you are new to the wastewater field, ideally you want to find a culture that is conducive to training and learning new skills. 

Compatible Skills

It is essential to have a realistic understanding of your personal strengths as well as areas which don’t come as naturally to you. In the wastewater industry, the biggest factor here to consider is mechanical aptitude. The degree to which proficiency in maintenance skills determine success in your job performance is often related to how specified individual work is. For example, in small plants, operators often need a broad range of skill sets, usually including proficiency in maintenance related tasks. You want to make sure you put yourself in the best position for success. Even areas that don’t come naturally for you can eventually become areas of proficiency, however you want to get a feel for the level of support you will have in acquiring these skills. Having people that can serve as mentors significantly reduces the learning curve and improves your chances of success. 

Base Knowledge

Mapping your career trajectory is challenging and if you speak to most wastewater professionals, you will likely find that they entered the wastewater industry by chance rather than as an intended career. Throughout our careers, it is highly likely that our ambitions and goals may change, therefore the broader your knowledge base and skillset, the better the foundation you obtain to align your goals with your circumstances throughout your career. In most instances, this circles back to identifying a proper fit in your first job in which you are exposed to multiple areas and have the necessary support to learn. 

Advice for New Hires

I feel that in the early stages of a new job role building rapport and gathering an understanding of the inter-place work dynamics are crucial. It is generally best to be agreeable, friendly but not an “open book”, and always make sure you are paying close attention to detail and the quality of your work. You want a reputation as someone who works hard and does good work. Expect that anything you say about anyone else will be repeated and find its way back to them. Refrain from topics that may be divisive such as politics and religion and learn about your colleagues’ interests in areas such as sports, recreation, and family activities. Participating in activities outside of work with colleagues is an individual preference, however I personally believe that strengthening these relationships is often not only pleasurable, but also often beneficial for career development. I personally recommend being very guarded about your career aspirations, especially when you don’t know if they put you in direct competition with others.

Other General Guidelines for Workplace Conduct

  • Always be in control of your emotions and do not react impulsively.
  • Communicate effectively, concisely, and through the proper channels.  
  • Gain an understanding of what your authority is to implement decisions, and when to run things by the people you report to. 
  • When possible, try things on your own before asking, but also keep the risk to reward aspects in consideration. Generally, management wants to see that you are resourceful and independent, but they also don’t want to have to clean up your mistakes. 
  • Maintain good personal hygiene and take pride in keeping your working areas clean and organized. 
  • Be truthful, do what you say you are going to do, and be on time. 
  • The intimacy of communications should be directly related to the possibility of these communications evoking emotion. For example, if something is straightforward this is generally best through email, while more complex subjects should be talked about in person or over the phone. 
  • If you think something you have to say may evoke negative emotion in others, sleep on it. See in the morning if what you had to say is still important enough to bring it up. 

Navigating your Career Path 

There is certainly a balance in the technical aspects as well as the personal aspects of any job. Successful people tend to be proficient in both, as weaknesses in either area will likely limit your opportunities. Once you determine what you want your career trajectory to be, you will want to determine the best path to get there. The beauty is that there is no right or wrong and the right fit for everyone is different. If you have ambitions of advancing you will want to determine if management or technical specialties are your desired area. If your goals are technically oriented, you will want to eventually specialize in these areas and become an expert. If your goals are leadership oriented, you will want to get a feel for the organizational structure of where you work and what that path would look like. In both scenarios, relocation and new employment opportunities are often required. I personally believe that in the early stages of your career you want to put a minimum of 1 year into any employment, don’t ever leave a job without a new job lined up, and do your best to maintain relationships and not burn bridges. It is a small industry, and you will gain a reputation quickly. Lastly, be aware of where your opportunities exist. For wastewater operators there are industrial facilities, municipal facilities, and contract wastewater operation companies as options in which you can work. These can branch off into a wide area of other focuses, and all have their own respective pros and cons. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, especially from people who have been in the industry for a significant amount of time. Many of us learn the hard way and it is also personally satisfying to help others to not make the same mistakes that we did!

Technical Wastewater Information Resource:

Wastewater Microbiology Book
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