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Smooth Operator Training: 5 Ways to Boost the Skillsets of Both Established and New Plant Workers

Heidi Vella

Maintaining adequate and ongoing training for staff can boost employee retention, plug the skills gap, and improve overall health and safety. Here's how.

In a busy power plant environment, prioritizing ongoing plant operator training is often a challenge. Yet without a well-established in-house learning and development program, skill levels between employees may vary vastly, resulting in unequal divisions of responsibility during shifts.

Employing a performance-based training and qualification program will address any skills gaps in your workforce and aid employee retention.

1. Start With a Skills Assessment

You should start with assessing the knowledge of individual employees, by asking them where they think they need more training.

You can do this through a simple online or paper-based test, created either in-house or by a third party. The purpose of the assessment is to reveal areas where machine operators feel their skills are lacking or where they could simply use a refresher. Individual assessments can also expose skills disparities between staff who work frequently together, which can be difficult to pinpoint.

This information makes it easier to curate training materials and programs that offer the most value to your operators.

2. Strengthen Process Documentation

As older, veteran plant workers approach retirement, it's important to pass on their wisdom, collected through years of service, to operators in the early years of their careers. This can be done via manuals and peer-to-peer flow diagrams.

First off, make sure all existing plant documentation is up to date, with any missing or additional information provided by the most experienced experts in each field. Remember, there may be specific, rarely used, but important processes that only one or two employees know how to perform. They must record this information, both so your current operators can access it, and so you can factor it into succession planning as your seasoned employees retire.

Key documents and diagrams include:

  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs): According to Fossil Consulting Inc., these are the most important parts of any facility's technical documentation. You can use them in training and simulation exercises, which teaches your operators that they're the go-to troubleshooting documentation. The SOPs enable less-experienced staff to get on with the job without needing to rely on supervisors. They should be frequently updated and given periodic and formal reviews.
  • Piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&ID): These diagrams, typically used by engineers and operators, are important to better understand processes and how machinery is interconnected, according to Lucidchart. You can use them to break down information into digestible flow charts. These charts can include understandable pictures and symbols to show how machinery systems work and where major components are located. Including how to troubleshoot problems is also a great use of this type of document.
  • Conduct of operations documentation: This describes the working standards expected by staff at all times. According to Fossil Consulting, it's used to "enhance the effectiveness of every worker, improve their safety, and minimize variations in performance of their tasks."

3. Create Study Guides and Test Progress

Once you've onboarded employees, what they can't learn from SOPs and P&IDs can be taught via study guides and ongoing progression testing. Study guides might include topics such as understanding operational evolutions and how to control various plant systems during startups and shutdowns.

If preferable, you can outsource study guides and specific training programs to specialist organizations, which can offer either generic or tailored mentoring, online or in person. These companies can also provide progression testing to ensure employees aren't skipping sections of the guides or moving on to the next stage before they're ready. They'll track your workers' studies through online automated platforms that are accessible to management.

As Victoria Zambito, SVP of content and communications at Vector Solutions, tells Transform, this process also helps define your employee's career path within your organization and outlines the skills, steps, and certifications necessary to achieve the next level.

"Then you can automate the learning plan and break certification training down into microcredentials, which divide larger tracks into smaller microsessions that the employee can achieve in shorter time frames," says Zambito. "This helps staff feel like they are making progress on a consistent basis."

4. Use Simulations for Training

In plant operator training, there's no replacement for hands-on practice. However, in high-risk operating environments, it's safer to use simulations before allowing employees to engage live machinery.

Using a simulation program, workers can learn important tasks and get familiar with the plant, its controls, and any associated operating procedures. Similarly, an employee can experience a simulated plant failure before a real-life one ever occurs, and practice the appropriate response. You can monitor workers' competence operating the virtual plant—or digital twin—until they've reached the skill level required to take the controls for real.

Simulation can even help veteran workers brush up on how to handle different system failures that only occur occasionally, but must be addressed right away. Similarly, if an unusual failure occurs, a simulator can be used to test different ways to remedy the problem.

Managers can invest in building in-house simulator systems or send staff to special training facilities.

5. Embrace Mobile and Technology Tools

In addition to other resources, microlearning apps are a great tool for on-demand, on-the-job support, and can help bridge skill gaps.

"Employees can quickly search these apps on a mobile device for a refresher on skills before they perform the job," explains Zambito. "This type of just-in-time learning can significantly help them reduce risk, performing more safely and effectively on the job."

Short repetitions in learning are also thought to increase long-term comprehension. "You learn, and then you do, which also contributes to an increase in long-term retention rates; it's real-time instant intelligence," says Zambito.

Other technology tools can make learning fun and rewarding. For example, a peer-to-peer recognition platform that integrates social learning can help your team both build a better rapport and share knowledge. A gamification app can help employees learn and retain skills in a way that feels like play. Many of these systems also offer self-assessments, so users know where they have strengths and weaknesses—and what steps they must take to get to the next level of their careers.

In Time, Your Plant Will Reap the Benefits

"Today, training is not just about taking a course and being done, it is about contextualized support to do your job better, along with critical assessments that automate learning needs," says Zambito. "Today's educational technology tools are propelling organizations and employees to an optimum level of performance, significantly reducing incidents and costs."

To keep operator skills consistent throughout your plant, take a proactive approach to staff training. There are many tools available to you. Just remember: A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn't usually work for everyone. Keep training resources interesting, yet consistent, and you'll see an improvement in employee retention and your overall operations.

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