Municipalities furnish streets, sidewalks, water, waste treatment and electricity to their residents, businesses and visitors. Public works directors run the departments responsible for providing these infrastructures and services. How they perform their duties impacts the community's health and safety, traffic flow and business environment.
Project Planners and Managers
Directors formulate and oversee construction and maintenance projects. Engineers and architects design the layout of the streets, plants, parks and utility systems. Depending on the project size, public works directors award contracts; the process involves telling contractors the work specifications, showing drawings of plans, receiving contractors’ proposals or bids and selecting the contractor. Directors need to grasp bidding laws; the selection of architects and engineers for public projects should be based on competence and quality, not the proposed price. Project management includes approving work, often with the assistance of architects or engineers.
Keeping Up the Infrastructure
The local government’s infrastructure needs tender and constant care. Public works directors oversee the filling of potholes or cracks in streets, lawn care at parks and government buildings, and repairing or maintaining pipes and meters. Maintenance duties also include testing water quality at plants and inspecting pipes for leaks. Directors order supplies for repairs as needed.
Cities and towns use holidays, festivals and parades to draw tourists, visitors and shoppers. Public works directors find and install or oversee the installation of Christmas lights, flags for Independence Day and other decorations for specific holidays. Public works departments control traffic and place barricades to keep streets clear for parades and special events.
Running the Department
Public works directors administer department operations, which entails hiring and firing employees, setting work schedules and assigning workers to plants and repair projects. Depending on the city or town, public works employees have unions, so directors must consider collective bargaining agreements, as well as civil service, federal and state employment and labor laws in handling personnel matters. Directors propose budgets for their departments and report the status of projects and the conditions of infrastructure to the city or town councils and mayors.
Directors must quickly respond to significant water and sewer system leaks, plant shutdowns and malfunctions, sinkholes and other emergencies affecting public works and streets. Directors assess, when safe, the extent of power outages, threats to the water supply and its quality and road conditions. Directors must oversee the salting and removal of snow and ice from streets. Many cities and towns require their directors to live within a certain distance, such as 15 miles, of the city or town limits.
How to Qualify
Most cities and towns seek director candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree in civil or construction engineering or a related field. Certain towns may accept those without college degrees, but who possess enough experience in public works. Directors typically must have experience in public works, civil engineering and supervising public works employees; prior employment in local government is also helpful. Certain employers may require or prefer candidates to be certified in operating water treatment and similar type facilities.
What Directors Make
Directors' pay varies with experience, education, other qualifications, a town or city's budget priorities and the size of the town or city. Salaries typically exceed $100,000 per year, with some figures approaching $200,000. For example, Santa Barbara's public works director opening is advertised with a salary range between $159,036 to $193,310 per year.
- City of Columbia Falls (Montana): Employee Job Description -- Public Works Director
- City of Hedrick (Iowa): Position Description -- Public Works Director
- City of Toledo (Oregon): Public Works Director
- American Public Works Association: Director Public Works Jobs
- Tennessee Board of Architectural and Engineering Examiners: Notice -- Proposals for Professional Services for Local Public Works Projects
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