Training New Generations in the Utility, Oil & Gas Industries

Retiring Workforce Offers Opportunity to Re-Examine Training to Improve Operational Performance

By Amy Borgmeyer, SR Consultant, Mosaic

The impending challenge of the aging workforce in utilities and oil & gas pipelines is a common theme in our industry today – the Center for Energy Workforce Development reports an average age of 47.2 in utilities. Pipeline companies are even worse off with an average age of 49. With the US Department of Labor predicting that up to 50 percent of the current energy workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years, companies are scrambling to capture the knowledge and document the best practices of their employees before the bulk of their experience and institutional knowledge walks out the door.

Throughout the industry, you can find discussions of the need to find more workers that are qualified and to train them more quickly, but there are far fewer discussions of how this development will happen. Some companies are working with schools (high schools, trade schools, community colleges, and other community-based programs) to identify and train specific skill sets, but few companies are in a position to hire all of their employees from these programs. In fact, their internal training programs are going to have to support the influx of new employees as well.
It isn’t enough just to ramp up the amount of training—the training and development of employees will have to be qualitatively different. Every generation has its cultural preferences for learning but more importantly, technological differences.

Not only is our industry changing with progressively more complicated technology and compliance requirements—the workforce that will be joining our companies is radically different than the workforce that is retiring. For the last 30+ years, the standard model for employee development in this industry was a lengthy development program of some formal training followed by long periods of unstructured on-the-job training with experienced employees. This model was effective for a number of reasons but will no longer support the rapid development required of new employees.

New Opportunities for Re-Structure

The influx of new employees into companies throughout our industry offers a number of opportunities as well as the more-often identified challenges. New employees are more familiar with more advanced technologies, more acclimated to a compliance environment where the documentation is as important as what you know or do (standardized testing, anyone?) and are more prepared for the ongoing change that is so prevalent in our cultures. These new employees also offer an opportunity to re-examine and restructure how we support the development and maintenance of competence in our employees in a way that will ultimately improve operational performance.

To achieve this goal, there are a number of things any new training programs must take into account:

  • According to a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, in the last five years, the use of technology in school classrooms has exploded – the number of blended learning solutions being offered to students almost doubled. This integration has only been achieved through what Alliance calls “involved and sustained career training for teachers – not occasional professional development – which concentrates not just on the technology, but also on the pedagogical skills needed to use the technology in teaching and learning.”
  •  Employees come to our industry accustomed to a learning environment that leverages technology in a meaningful way to support their learning. Internet use, media (YouTube, games), and interactive tools (SmartBoards, etc.) are used consistently to keep learners engaged. New employees will expect the same type of tools in their workplace development.
  •  Simply implementing the technology in the classroom with existing trainers will rarely prove successful. The utilization of technology to facilitate learning will require investment in instructors as well.
  •  More and more, educators in the classroom are using “flipped” classroom models in which students’ access lecture/video as homework and use classroom time for facilitated application. This model moves from traditional pedagogy to a model that is more aligned with adult learning principles that advocate opportunities for self-directed learning and focus on learning as experiential and focused on problem-solving.
  •  The flipped classroom model facilitates more efficient development as students get more individualized feedback and coaching.
    Students are also able to see the relevance of the more theoretical homework as they are immediately able to apply what they’ve learned in performance context.
  • Changing the way that formal, instructor-led training is delivered is only one piece of the puzzle. Modern workforces continue to drive an environment where learning occurs primarily outside of the classroom, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  •  About 70 percent of learning normally happens on the job. Just because traditional on-the-job training models will no longer work, companies cannot afford to ignore the amount of learning that happens on the job. Instead, new levels of structure and support must be put in place to provide consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness to this part of employee development.
  •  Younger generations also tend to be relationship-oriented—the relationships developed through on the job training will set the tone and cultural expectations for their tenure with the company.
  •  Employees can’t, won’t, and don’t want to learn all of the hundreds or thousands of pieces of information they’ll need on their jobs all at once. There’s no point in teaching someone something they won’t apply for another six months as they will have forgotten it when they need it.
  •  Training and development must be segmented so that employees learn what they need, when and where they need it. Where tasks are performed infrequently, refresher training must be in place and company culture must support a willingness to stop and ask questions or look information up before proceeding.
  •  New employees are used to having the internet at their fingertips when they need to look something up. They expect to have their work enabled by easily accessible, useful information (procedural information and/or performance support systems). Companies must increase both the quality and quantity of support material available as the only thing worse than not having the information available is to have the wrong information in place.

The changing demographics of the energy industry poses a potential risk to companies as newer, less experienced employees become the bulk of the workforce. However, the news isn’t all negative. If new employees are brought in and brought up to speed effectively and efficiently, there is opportunity for renewed innovation and productivity as well. Simply providing more of the same types of training won’t achieve the goal of competence. The different characteristics of the newer workers must also be taken into account. Only with new training and development models can companies achieve the benefits from the infusion of new employees while mitigating the risk of less experience.