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American Gas: Maximize Effective Field Operations Training

The energy and utility industry is facing an unprecedented level of change, requiring a shift in the way organizations approach field operations training. Developing a safe, skilled, and high-performing workforce is essential to maintaining and improving workplace safety, optimizing business performance, ensuring compliance, and maximizing stakeholder value.

How do companies achieve this goal? A recently concluded benchmark study conducted with 36 North American utility and midstream pipeline companies offers some insight.

“Participating companies face a myriad of challenges in training a new workforce as their experienced workers continue to retire at unprecedented rates – along with the need to improve the depth and quality of training in response to new complexities in their business due to new technologies, expanding regulatory requirements and infrastructure expansion and replacement,” said Clint Morse, founder and executive vice president of The Mosaic Company, which conducted the study. Sponsors were Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Enbridge, NiSource, and Dominion Energy.

The 2017 Energy & Utility Training Benchmark Study highlights five steps by leading companies to increase their effectiveness in building and maintaining a competent workforce.

  1. Gain strong and consistent executive sponsorship. Most internal training organizations are viewed as a support or service organization to their company’s primary business, and they receive varying levels of support from the lines of business they serve. Participating companies that reported having strong and consistent executive support for training also reported a much higher success rate in staying aligned with the needs of the business and in their ability to develop a competent workforce equipped to support overarching business goals. Without effective support, companies reported an inability to be successful, despite their best efforts, structure, or personnel.Three specific approaches emerged as the best methods for gaining executive support:
    • Structured governance processes that are owned at the executive level.
    • Proactive identification and prioritization of training needs throughout the entire organization.
    • Consistent communication of training’s value to the business in terms that are understood and accepted by company leadership.
  2. Measure training effectiveness in terms of business value. Training organizations that produce and communicate measurable business improvements reported receiving significantly increased support from both senior leadership and the internal business units they serve. Measuring training effectiveness through business outcomes helps shift organizations from looking at training as an expense to valuing it as a strategic investment.Two methods of measuring the effectiveness of field operations training stood out as best-in-class:
    • A portfolio model that provides a deeper view into high-impact, high-visibility programs and provides a subset of data that can be used to extrapolate broader hypotheses and inform future investments in training.
    • A speed-to-competence model that measures the return on investment from training programs that are focused on driving increased productivity and faster time to proficiency in new hires.
  3. Develop and deliver competency-based training. Companies and training organizations that focus training efforts on developing and sustaining employee competence versus simply meeting compliance requirements consistently reported producing a more skilled and qualified workforce, which in turn resulted in greater confidence from company leadership that field operations employees are equipped to work safely and efficiently – and in way that meets or exceeds compliance goals.Companies that have competency-based training programs have a few key things in common:
    • They build career-long descriptions of the job skills required for successful performance across each field operations role.
    • They create a program design for each job/role that defines the training required to build full competence over the course of an employee’s career.
    • They use refresher training to keep experienced employees continuously learning and up to date as tools, technologies and work methods change.
  4. Utilize technology to reduce training costs and increase the speed to competency. Companies and training organizations that reported an increased use of technology in all aspects of their training efforts reported an overall reduction in training expense, especially around training delivery. Additionally, they reported that the use of technology increased knowledge transfer effectiveness and the speed to competence and full productivity, especially within the millennial workforce.The most effective technology solutions were different for each company. The key is to address actual business needs when determining which technologies to invest in, rather than chasing what’s trendy. A few standouts from the benchmark study included:
    • Web-based training that focuses on general knowledge, prepares students for classroom training or augments existing training.
    • Electronic training materials loaded on laptops or tablets that are easy to reference during formal training and on the job.
    • Easy-to-use performance support tools that provide access to reference materials in the field.
    • Videos for microlearning and skills demonstrations.
  5. Aim for a balanced investment in training across facilities, instructors and competency-based curriculum. The most effective training organizations balance the investment in training across:
    • Dedicated training facilities that mirror real-world work and enable employees to learn and practice tasks under close-to-actual conditions.
    • Instructor development programs that allow for more effective facilitation of training, as well as technical expertise.
    • Competency-based curriculum that is designed and developed by training experts to support adult learning styles and embrace on-the-job learning

One more thing

While there is much still to do, the study results indicate that many companies within the energy and utility industries are making important strides. They’re not only maximizing the effectiveness of field operations training, but are also successfully building and maintaining a competent – and capable – workforce at the same time.