Grow your own: Cultivating the next generation
"We have a lot of 'seedlings' in the form of building inspectors, plans examiners and permit technicians growing right in our very own departments"
A long time ago, in a jurisdiction far, far away…
Right after I earned my associate’s degree in architectural technology back in 1972, I lucked out and got a job as a residential plans examiner/office clerk in a small suburb of Chicago (they didn’t have administrative assistants or permit technicians back then). My duties consisted of answering phones, taking messages, logging in plans, reviewing residential plans, scheduling inspections, typing letters and filing. I was 20 years old and knew nothing about building codes and standards. For the most part, my on-the-job training consisted of ‘Write this comment in red on the plans.’ My immediate goal was to learn more about codes and then go back in a year and get my bachelor’s degree in architecture. Well, that never happened. The more I learned, the more I really enjoyed the work I was doing.
About a year after I started that first job for the Village of Schaumburg, the deputy building official left and went to another small jurisdiction about 20 miles away. Shortly thereafter, he called me and asked if I wanted to be a building inspector in that jurisdiction. I had absolutely no experience doing inspections but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So, I did. Luckily, there was an inspector there that took me under his wing when I first started and showed me the basics. I spent approximately 10 years with the Village of Carol Stream and my duties consisted of plan review, inspections and code enforcement.
After that, I was hired as a senior plans examiner in the neighboring county of DuPage. This was my first foray into the world of management and it wasn’t always fun. From there, I gradually learned the particulars of managing and, after a few formal certifications, finally became a building official.
The point of this boring autobiographical rundown is that I couldn’t have done this on my own. I had lots of mentors who helped and encouraged me to succeed. They also provided the most important ingredient: inspiration. Without that, I’m not sure where I would have ended up.
Early in my code career, there were no certifications or real formal training. Maybe a speaker or two at a chapter meeting or a few one-day seminars, but it was mostly in-house and on-the-job training. Not a bad thing, but we’ve come a long way since then. Certifications, chapter committees and formal training abound. And many of us are taking full advantage of that. But are we encouraging our staff members to do the same?
Today, there is a lot of talk and discussion about the ‘silver tsunami’ in regards to all of us silver-haired veterans nearing retirement; we are concerned with who will take our place. Should we recruit from high schools? Colleges? Trade schools? Military veterans’ groups? I’m thinking those are all excellent places to seek out the next generation of silent defenders but I also believe we have a lot of ‘seedlings’ in the form of building inspectors, plans examiners and permit technicians growing right in our very own departments. They just need nurturing… and inspiration. These folks have already sprouted roots and have started to grow. Some will not make it, others will stagnate but others will show an interest in our respected profession and will want to move upward. I’m sure most code officials have at least one, if not more, of these types of employees in their midst.
First, we need to determine which of our employees are interested in our industry. To many, this is just a job and a paycheck. Nothing wrong with that but what about those that may be considering a career as a professional code official? Do you know who they are? (I’m guessing you do.) Are you inspiring them to become the very best they can be?
So, how do we inspire them? They see us going to chapter meetings and seminars or committee meetings but do they know what those are all about? I mentioned earlier that I really enjoyed my job but I never really got involved until around 1996 when I was a building official in Arizona. One of the building officials was on the Certification and Education Committee [of the legacy model code group the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO)] and told me that ICBO was forming an Exam Development Committee to develop a permit technician certification exam. Was I interested in serving on that committee? Once again, I had no experience with this process and hesitated with my response but this building official convinced me that I could handle it and that it would be fun. He was right and I was inspired. Sometimes, we all need a gentle encouraging push in the right direction.
I started learning more about the workings of our business, met a lot of interesting and knowledgeable people, developed networks, and grew more confident in my abilities as a code official. I was also more valuable to my jurisdiction because I was ‘in the know’ and could keep my staff and management updated on current industry happenings.
From there, I became more involved in my local International Code Council chapter and eventually became its president. At about the same time, I was also elected as the chairperson of the Arizona Building Officials. I encouraged my staff to attend some of the meetings, I was able to get some of them appointed to Code Council committees and I even got involved in the formation of the Arizona Permit Technicians. Other building officials did the same and it was immensely rewarding to watch these various staff members become inspired and move up through the ranks.
Again, the whole point of all this is that I was a know-nothing person: I knew nothing about codes, how they worked and, in fact, didn’t even know they existed. I knew nothing about building departments and hadn’t even heard of a building permit. However, people believed in me and my abilities and I’m where I am now because of them. Sure, I had the desire but I needed that inspiration.
If you’re a veteran code official, think back. How did you get involved in this industry? Who helped you out during your career? If your answer is, ‘No one helped me. I did it all on my own,’ I admire you and your stamina, but I also feel you missed out a bit. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more fun to have someone to counsel you through your career and champion your progress? I was fortunate enough to have people that did that for me. And they were people I worked with every day. I can’t even remember the names of some but I do remember their wisdom and guidance. Each one of them had a ‘green thumb’ when it came to growing my seedling career. To be fair, some even used a bit of ‘fertilizer’ but even that was helpful!
Will some building inspector, plans examiner or permit technician in your office look back 10 or more years from now and mention your name as one of the professionals who helped them grow and succeed in our industry? I sure hope so.