Discussion: Do Enduser Plants Suffer From A Knowledge Gap?

Compiled by Mike Henley & the Linkedin Ultrapure Water Group



Editor’s note: This column is based on a recent discussion on the LinkedIn Ultrapure Water Group. This column seeks to accurately reflect comments from each contributor. On occasion, there may be the need to edit contributor comments for clarity or length. Readers are invited to join the Ultrapure Water Group and to participate in discussions. An important purpose of the group is to provide a forum for practical discussion of issues facing endusers of high-purity water.


Successful operation of high-purity and industrial water systems is an art. One component is having the appropriate water treatment equipment for treating the water. Another aspect to water system operation is appreciation of incoming feedwater chemistry, as well as knowing the quality requirements for the treated water. But, without personnel who understand the source, the equipment, and the final use, successful high-purity water treatment may not be possible.

In today’s water space, many enduser facilities, and even service providers have come to experience a “knowledge gap”. As water experts retire or leave for other reasons, they often may take their knowledge with them, and their former employer may find its remaining staff does not have the same depth of understanding needed for successful high-purity water treatment.

Click here to read the discussion in full

Mike: “Is there a knowledge gap at enduser plants? Let's define. When water treatment personnel leave enduser sites (retirement, other job opportunities, or layoffs), plant managers may not necessarily hire replacements qualified to take over. The result can be that power stations, pharmaceutical plants, and microelectronics facilities lose valuable, experienced employees and are left understaffed in the sense that the remaining workers have much less experience and understanding helpful for successful water treatment system operation. Is this an accurate observation— yes or no? What remedy would you recommend?”


Nikhilesh:This is always a problem in the water field. Generally at the lower staffing levels, management does not have any succession plan. So generally whenever an experienced person leaves, his/her absence is felt for some time. This time may vary from a couple of weeks to even a couple of months. There are many factors that play important roles for a smooth succession. When a person is separated suddenly with no notice in an exceptional situation, nothing can be done. It is expected that the person leaving has a different priority once he receives notice.

All depends on if the new person has the ability to learn as much as he can within a short period. Mostly at lower level positions there is no written takeover procedure or documents where the knowledge and contribution of a departing water expert is captured. So mostly, the person leaving carries his on-the-job knowledge with him.

Another disaster happens when the employer green fields the job when a person leaves or decides to combine the job with other jobs. These are realities. The person who suffers the most is the departmental manager for such unplanned loses.

A couple of things can help solve this problem from my experience:

  1. Identify key jobs. Document everything that the job requires. Identify key people and keep one or two on standby who are ready by giving on-the-job training at the department level.
  2. Make a notice period compulsory for key jobs.”

Olivier: “I agree with Nikhilesh, it is a well-known and usual story. Is it fate? I don't think so, but things are changing and the way water systems are managed is moving forward to new standards. That's where we, water treatment and water professionals, can bring our values.”

Mike:Thank you Olivier and Nikhilesh for your thoughts. One example of the "knowledge drain" has been the power industry. There have been cases where corporate owners have encouraged senior staff, including the company water experts (doctors), to take early retirement packages. However, when the "water doctors" left, their position may not be filled, or if it is, the replacement works outside of the water area. So in these cases, the corporate owners may save on salary expenses, but they have lost the knowledge and valuable experience held by their former ‘water doctors’.

The deeper question really is this: ‘Does facility water treatment suffer and do unnecessary problems such as outages arise? Or, conversely are there really no more problems than before, and is this discussion really about a natural change where some water-using industries (endusers) have entered a new paradigm for who bears responsibilities for water treatment oversight?’ (Please note: These comments are in no way meant to belittle facility staff, which in many instances are capable and can come to ‘fill the gap’.)”

Nikhilesh:Good point. I can say the man who suffers maximum is the manager of the department who has lost the person. He goes through enormous stress to manage the situation and develop the replacement if he gets someone. This has no impact on the senior level management. They are not concerned about who is coming and going. HR looks at only the attrition numbers and as long as it is not alarming they are happy. The value of knowledge or experience has very little recognition in especially big organization. That's the life and it goes on.

John: “Mike, in general we seem to be experiencing a brain drain at all levels in the water treatment space. Many of my key employee and consultants are more than 50 or 60, and I am not sure where the OEMs will find replacements for this valuable human capital.”

Tom:What I have noticed is an outright phobic reaction on the part of hiring managers to cultivate talent. I lost count of how many organizations have refused to fill a position because the applicants were not perfect. At the same time, I see these tough-hire companies post and re-post the same positions because when they find the ideal candidate, they quickly lose them.”

John:Sounds like a first-rate training program has to be part of the acquisition and development budget?”

Debbie: “The reason why they are leaving is because companies don't treat them with respect and empower them!”

Gareth:In Asia, a lot of the owners are scared of providing technical knowledge to the new staff because they fear that they will leave and take their knowledge and in some cases drawings with them.

A lot of the new graduates or engineers seem to think that the software from manufacturers will solve their design or operating issues. I used to train my engineers to the extent that my company was called a "University".

During my time of running my company based in Singapore, the staff that left has set up a total of 20 companies.

A lot of this comes down to trust and mutual respect. The junior engineers have to be hungry to learn and go into the field. The older ones have to be shown respect. The owners have to learn to trust. I developed spreadsheets to do designs quickly. The technical information was sent to all the senior staff.”

What are your thoughts? You may join this or other discussions at the Ultrapure Water group


Log in or Subscribe to Access the Full Article

To read or download full-length articles you need a subscription to Ultrapure. Please log in or subscribe below.