The Problem of High Staff Turnover at Water Utilities in the Developing World

By Dennis D. Mwanza

Effective and efficient delivery of urban water services continues to elude most utilities in developing countries, due to the unique set of 19 challenges they face.

For evidence, one need look no further than prevalent poor performance indicators such as high non-revenue water (usually in excess of 30 percent), low staff productivity( measured by the number of staff per 1,000 connections), low-cost recovery (a function of low tariffs), a lack of billing and collection efficiency and even low connectivity (the number of customers connected to the water network compared to the total city population). Water availability is also limited across the continent, with very few cities in Africa being able to supply more than 16 hours of water per day, and many others being forced to resort to haphazard water rationing.

One of the most pressing problems water utilities face is low staff productivity, which affects all aspects of a utility’s performance. A major cause of the productivity gap is a severe talent shortfall. For example, Mozambique must double its current number of qualified water professionals to meet national WASH goals, while 98 percent of human resources shortages in Ghana are in the water and sanitation sector, according to the International Water Association (IWA).

But a lack of trained employees is only part of the picture. High staff turnover also plays a significant role in low productivity.


The Challenge of Staff Turnover
One of the biggest challenges faced by HR in water utilities is how to retain top-performing employees. Turnover, whether voluntary or involuntary, is highly disruptive to operations, takes a high financial toll of water utilities and can lead to loss of morale among team members. High staff turnover can also tarnish the reputation of water utilities, since outsiders make assumptions that the organization is not an attractive place to work, regardless of the actual reasons for the high turnover rate. Some staff turnover is inevitable (e.g., retirement, death and relocation). Competition for talent is getting tighter as quality staff are snapped up by organizations offering better remuneration and working conditions.

These issues can be addressed, as can other underlying reasons for high turnover, including lack of motivation, disillusionment, job dissatisfaction and lack of a supportive, enabling work environment. These problems can be caused by a lack of clarity in a worker’s job responsibilities and few prospects for growth and advancement. Another problem is water utility staff are often overworked, underpaid, lack recognition and get little feedback on their performance. In fact, any mention of a performance review often strikes fear into staff members – usually due to a lack of agreed-upon performance goals, targets and key performance indicators. In essence, they lack valuable incentives for better performance, or disincentives for poor performance.

Staff also lack a sense of belonging, and are disconnected from major decisions concerning the direction of the utility. At the end o the day, employees are micromanaged and simple wait for daily instructions even the smallest tasks. They usually have few opportunities to contribute any innovative ideas or to offer any input on decision making. Worst-case scenarios also include poor management, abuse by those in authority and preferential treatment and favoritism. Perhaps worst of all is the elephant in the room: corruption by senior staff, which sometimes lead to lower-ranking team members being drawn into corrupt practices on behalf of their managers – an all-too-common scenario that ultimately leads to poor performance of the utility.


Importance of Human Resources (HR) for Water Utilities
One sure way to tackle turnover starts with a strong HR department. In order for a utility to address turnover and other key performance indicators, it must attract and retain employees of a certain quantity and quality. That is, individuals that have sufficient skills in key areas such as: engineering, science, finance, human resources, communication, and community outreach. In this ever-changing world, professionals in the water industry must be equipped with the necessary skills and tools to deal with new, evolving and complex issues in the sector. A common mistake made by utility management is focusing on improving infrastructure at the expense of addressing human resource needs of the utility.

It is the responsibility of the HR department to promote employee engagement, promote the culture of an organization, ensure job satisfaction, drive results-based strategies for the employees and design a continuous, transparent employee performance management system. Perhaps most importantly, employees should be given autonomy to complete their work without micromanagement and constant supervision, freedom to express their ideas and opportunities to be recognized for their accomplishments.


Is There Any Hope of Reducing Water Utility Staff Turnover?
The short answer is yes. The above trend can be reversed, but doing so requires the utility leadership to take appropriate action by putting steps in place to address this unfortunate issue. In my next installment, I’ll share some strategies utility leaders can use to reduce staff turnover.


Dennis Mwanza is a Board Member of ROCKBlue. The former Managing Director of the Water Utility Partnership for capacity building in Africa and Lusaka Water and Sanitation Company He is as senior WASH Advisor for RTI International.