A Day in the Life of a Plant Operator
Originally published March 19, 2013
|Troy Jones mans the control room at Easton Utilities as Pete Welty Jr., assistant super intendent of plant operations and interconnection, checks in. Photo by Laura D'Alessandro.|
During lunch at Mason’s on Harrison Street in Easton, Md., the waitress asked red-haired and bearded Pete Welty Jr., “How are you?” with recognition when she greeted the table. He was doing fine, he said, followed by, “Haven’t seen you in a long time.”
This incident seems like the natural order for residents of Easton, a town of about 15,000 located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While 41-year-old Welty was born in nearby Trappe, a town of about 1,000, he spent his formative years in Easton, where he walked home from school each day with his brother to his grandmother’s house.
When the waitress left the table, Welty said in a quiet voice that this degree of recognition is thanks to his grandfather, the town’s doctor for the municipal health department. Welty knows everyone — or rather, everyone knows him.
But it is by virtue of another factor that many people who do not, in fact, know him make it their business to.
Welty is the assistant superintendent of plant operations and interconnection at Easton Utilities, a city-owned integrated utility that manages electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, Internet and cable TV services. Like the utility, Welty does a little bit of everything.
A quiet corner of the world
Welty sets the alarm for 6:30 a.m. every weekday. In the fuzziness of that early hour, he often wonders what day it is, or, more importantly, if it’s the weekend yet. Most of the time, it’s not, and he gets up to head over to his office in one of Easton’s two power plants.
After parking his white Ford pickup, adorned with Easton Utility logos on the doors, he heads through the plant into his office. Past rows of train-car-sized diesel engines, through a shop room that smells of oil and sawdust, is a plain white hallway where the only decorations are office nameplates—“P. F. Welty Jr.” He has arrived.
He sits down at his double-monitor PC to reconcile the past day’s paperwork. He verifies the numbers on one printed sheet, one hand-written sheet, and the Excel sheet on his screen where control room workers have recorded the hourly electricity load numbers. It’s one of a laundry list of Excel tasks Welty performs, a list that spans the length of his iPad screen where he stores his “to-dos.” But on any given day, that list could be thrown out the window.
“I mean, you’re creating electricity for a living, more or less,” he said. “You can’t really predict the future, you just have to be ready.”
Welty could be called to the scene for any number of reasons, some not electricity-related, including the rare chemical spill. But on this particular Friday Welty’s phone rang a handful of times. The office itself was eerily quiet, in fact, silent in Welty’s corner save for the hum of flickering fluorescent lights and his clicking through Excel documents.
|Pete Welty Jr., assistant superintendant of plant operations and interconnection at Easton Utilities, fields questions from many employees as his hand is in just about every part of the utility's work. Photo by Laura D'Alessandro|
The Easton Utilities family
After a while, the workshop door opened and closed and footsteps approached. They stopped at Welty’s door where a grey-haired and bearded man stopped to say good morning. Dan Tarrant, the superintendent who supervises Welty, has worked for Easton Utilities for more than 40 years. But he did not stop by Welty’s office to give instructions for a task or check in on is workflow—instead he regaled him with a story of an 18-wheel delivery truck that had gotten stuck on the office lawn while trying to make a delivery.
“What pulled it out?” Tarrant asked Welty, rhetorically. “One Ford. I pulled him out sideways,” Tarrant said with pride. “See, we are multi-talented around here.”
Laughter from the engineers’ quarters down the hall broke the silence in Welty’s office later that morning. “We have fun,” he said of his colleagues. “I’m a goofball.”
Part of what fuels their fraternization is no doubt how long the employees have known each other. Welty is about to celebrate his 18th anniversary at Easton Utilities. Welty and his officemate Nick Greenhawk have worked together since 1996.
“As he moved up, I’ve followed in his footsteps,” Greenhawk said.
Now Welty is training Greenhawk to take some of his management duties for what the utility calls succession planning. “He’s a pretty good teacher,” said Greenhawk.
Like many public power utilities, employee retention is one of Easton Utilities’ boasting points. The average tenure of employees is about 12 years, according to Geoff Oxnam, vice president of operations.
“I think that more than anything speaks to how committed people are to this,” Oxnam said. “It’s a family, really.”
Much has changed for Welty over his 18 years with Easton Utilities. His long-sleeve, white button-down shirt, khakis and steel-toe boots aren’t the workman’s clothes an assistant operator wears, which is where Welty started.
The nine-to-five schedule differs as well. Operators and assistant operators work four 12-hour shifts followed by four days off. Desk work is different, Welty said. Before, there was a divide.
“You kind of got that break from everything,” he said. “Once I moved into management, I went to a five-day week, and I miss those four days off.”
Along with the long weekends, Welty also said goodbye to his motorcycle when he transitioned from shiftwork to weekdays. Welty said he has “a need for speed.” Now he feeds his need with something else that also allows him to continue working with his hands despite giving up the manual labor portion of his job—model speedboats, which he builds to race.
But there wasn’t any model-building in Welty’s weekend plans on Friday. The office remained silent into the early afternoon. Many employees headed home, having worked longer shifts earlier in the week. Welty thought he might head home, too, but would come in over the weekend to get a head start on some tasks and finish up others.
“No, no building boats this weekend,” he said. “I think it’s just going to be relax and recharge.”
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