Do you have enough bananas?

Hydrometric Workforce - hydrology corner blog

The rejuvenation of the hydrometric workforce is apparent everywhere I look. The bi-modal demographic of pre-retirees and new recruits is rapidly changing to a positive-skew, long tail, age distribution.

This is both exciting and worrisome.

The long tail of experienced veterans is continually getting shorter. What is left is a cadre of (mostly) young, very smart, capable, well-educated and enthusiastic stream hydrographers. This transition is very timely given the rapid changes in hydrometric  monitoring technology (e.g. ADCP). The implementation of new technology is actually driving some old field hands to choose to retire. They simply aren’t interested in learning how to do their job, almost from scratch, all over again.

Quality and experience were almost inter-changeable concepts over most of my career. It was very rare to detect a blunder – or find any reason to argue about data interpretation – in peer review of a senior stream hydrographer. Conversely, the peer review process for junior stream hydrographers work was full of, shall we say, teachable moments.

So the question is: what happens to these learning opportunities once the last of the greybeards leave the room?

The answer is that this is the wrong question. The reason it is the wrong question is that everything is now different.

Bud Skinner (a field-hardened hydrometric veteran with wisdom born of experience) taught me the basics and he would famously qualify anything he taught me with the phrase:

“You could teach a monkey to do this job if you had enough bananas”

I still don’t know whether I should have been offended or not. Nevertheless, this phrase had a fundamental truth, the training required to count beeps for a conventional current meter measurement was not the issue. The real issue was practice and experience.

With the technologies available today training is the issue. Anyone who understands the technology well enough can get a good measurement even if they lack years of experience. There are enough onboard diagnostics that, if properly used and interpreted, will correctly identify almost any procedural blunder in near real time. The end-to-end data path, from acquisition to archive, touches on many technologies that now depend more on knowledge than experience.

The relevant question becomes: where does all of this training come from and what are the minimum standards for this training? I don’t have a facile answer to this question, but offer some suggestions in a new whitepaper I’ve authored entitled The 5 Essential Elements of a Hydrological Monitoring Program. I am also looking forward to a presentation Russell Boals will be making ‘Multi stakeholder based hydrometric standards and training’ at the NASH symposium in Banff this June.

Photo credit: Eric Kilby  |  Guenon Eating a Banana | License


Water Data Management eBooks & Whitepapers - The 5 Essential Elements of a Hydrological Monitoring Program

Whitepaper: The 5 Essential Elements of a Hydrological Monitoring Program

Best practices, standards, and technologies for hydrometric monitoring have changed. Learn how modern approaches improve the availability, reliability, and accuracy of water information. Read whitepaper here.

3 responses to “Do you have enough bananas?”

  1. Dave Gunderson May 10, 2012 at 12:38 am

    Stu,

    How timely you ask this question. In the last two months we’ve had this very discussion within our agency. People retiring, institutional knowledge lost, training and retaining new blood. Most of the new techs we hire have a college degree. That is a good start. Hopefully, they have had some math, know how to write a report and have the basics of Microsoft Office. The time honored method of giving them the “knowledge” comes with pairing them up with an experienced tech, giving them the basic on-the-job training and incrementally harder tasking. Formal training can come from the USGS or short courses offered by various colleges (Cal Poly ITRC comes to mind). Occasionally, great training is given by a vendor (Examples – SonTek, Design Analysis, Sutron, etc).

    To top it off, to be effective in the field – the technician needs to understand instrumentation, basic electronic troubleshooting and computers. Giving this type of training takes a long time before the lessons “stick”.

    You were right about the new generation of equipment. Built in diagnostics, some self correction. DCP’s that multi-task. All true. The majority of equipment is often deployed in “default mode”. It takes time to figure the best way to deploy for optimal operation. The answers are often not in the tech manual and at times we have to download a firmware fix from the vendor to resolve an issue.

    A guy has to have skills in several disciplines now days to get by.

    Speaking as one of the Gray Beards who has worked over his share of deployments and is in the process of guiding others.

    Dave

  2. Hi Dave,

    What I hear you saying is that there are still plenty of teachable moments no matter how well trained the newbie is. In fact, I would even add that those with the most book knowledge are sometimes the most difficult to turn into good stream-gaugers. There is the intangible ability to think on your feet to correctly identify potential for error and then to take action to prevent that potential from escalating into a real problem. I think of this as ‘bush sense’.

    I think you have hit on a good topic for another blog post. I’ll give it some thought. The topic would be on how to recruit a good stream hydrographer. Basically, you want someone who can take the training you provide and then to think independently but to not overthink the problem. It is a continuous, incremental, learning process that only certain people have a real aptitude for. So how do you find the people with that aptitude?

    If I have the question right can you respond with your approach to this problem?

    Thanks,
    stu

    • Dave Gunderson May 11, 2012 at 1:26 am

      Stu,

      Most “teachable moments” we have with new people happens as the opportunity arises. It occurs all the time. I’m sure that you have seen this first hand in your own experiences.

      We all learn something in the unique things we find in the field. The field experience that a new person has often re-enforces an earlier lesson they received in their formal education. What is nice, is when you see them “connect the dots” on a process or procedure. In some cases their questions can challenge you in giving a reasonable answer they can understand. Sometimes, when they explain their own train of thought – we get some insights to a different perspective.

      You mention about people having “book smarts” but having some difficulty in making the physical association with field situations. Sometimes they feel that their knowledge is on-par or superior with a seasoned field person. Of course, we see this all the time. Book smarts doesn’t equate to being intelligent, insightful or receptive to new ideas. It is a mix of things.

      If I had to make a Blog post about training and professional development of a hydro-tech, this could cover a series of detailed posts. It takes time to develop the professional skills. It also varies with the individual. As interesting as it sounds, sometimes your stellar performer is not the person with the Masters Degree but the guy that had several semesters at the local junior college and the desire to succeed.

      Retention of quality employees is also an on-going issue. They may love their work but hate their work locale. You put effort in developing and nurturing those skills over the last 18 months. You find that after all the efforts on development and the training sessions you sent them on – that they are not happy and want to move on to another job elsewhere. Of course, this is part of the business.

      I hope that I answered at least some of your questions. I feel that I also introduced some other items that are part of the general things we see.

      BTW, Excellent blog. Glad to have found it.

      Dave

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