While the importance of effective operations training within the energy and utility industries has never been greater, findings from a recent energy and utility training benchmark study demonstrate that the industry is facing a significant challenge in developing and sustaining a competent workforce. However, the study also found a handful of proactive steps that leading companies are taking to develop a skilled and high-performing workforce in alignment with business goals.
The study was sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Enbridge, NiSource and Dominion Energy. It was conducted by The Mosaic Company (Mosaic), a national consulting firm that focuses on developing employees to their fullest potential, and driving business performance in the energy and utility space. Thirty-six leading energy and utility companies in North America participated in a thorough interview process, covering topics from governance and measurement, to training development, and delivery and use of technology in training.
THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
Operations training is critically important to the energy industry due to the high safety risks of the work being performed. Additionally, the level of change in the industry is prompting a shift in the way companies approach training. Consider that:
• It is estimated that anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of the industry’s employees are nearing retirement age, and millennials are beginning to make up a larger percentage of the workforce. In fact, many are in supervisor and management roles.
• At the same time, technological advances are changing the way employees do work at unforeseen rates, creating more job complexity.
• The high degree of regulation and oversight is continuing to increase scrutiny and financial exposure.
The graph [below] depicts the level of impact (on a scale of 1 to 7) that participants felt each of the following market pressures were having on their companies and training organizations.
All participating benchmark companies reported that the importance of building and sustaining a competent workforce was becoming increasingly critical to achieving desired business results, and that effective operations training was an essential component in creating and sustaining business value. However, only 16 percent of training leaders interviewed believed that their organization’s training efforts are sufficient to achieve desired competency levels and produce elevated results. The fact that companies recognize the significance of a competent workforce, while failing to adequately invest in the training required to achieve that goal, is a serious gap compared to other industries.
KEY STUDY FINDINGS
Many companies are making significant strides in the following areas compared to industry peers, enabling them to elevate their field operations training programs and achieve enhanced business results.
1. Gaining strong and consistent executive sponsorship.
As a support service to the primary business of producing and delivering energy, training organizations define their relevance and success based on their ability to contribute to the larger priorities and goals of their organization.
To stay aligned with the needs of the business, there must be strong and consistent sponsorship of training at the executive level. Whether it’s through formal governance processes or informal relationships with senior leaders, training’s number-one priority must be to champion for this commitment, and to consistently demonstrate training’s value to the business in terms that will be understood and accepted by company leaders.
It was a consistent finding throughout the benchmark study that without strong and consistent executive sponsorship, training efforts will be deprioritized and undervalued regardless of program quality.
One participating California utility’s executive vice president of operations brings all his leaders together for an annual summit, where the organization outlines training programs and priorities for the year. This event is tremendously important to the business’ investment in training, because a senior leader stands in front of his entire operations team and lets them know that he expects their support and commitment to training every day of the year.
2. Measuring training effectiveness in terms of business value.
Training leaders who are producing and communicating measurable business improvements are receiving much greater support for training from their senior leaders and internal business organizations. Measuring training effectiveness through business outcomes helps shift organizations from looking at training as an expense. Instead, it becomes valued as a strategic investment that enables field employees to become safer and more productive in a shorter amount of time.
A Houston-based midstream pipeline company uses a speed-to-competence model to measure the return-on-investment (ROI) from training. They used baseline data from the field by calculating the nonproductive time of new hires before implementing their new training program. Recent post-training calculations demonstrated an ROI of over 15 percent.
This metric demonstrates that a well-executed training program can directly benefit bottom-line financial results by increasing productivity earlier in a field worker’s career.
3. Developing and delivering competency-based training.
For companies focused on compliance, training is just a means to an end. Providing the minimum amount of training and checking a box for qualification is accepted as “good enough.” However, compliance-based training often results in “qualified” employees working in the field with insufficient preparation to accurately or safely complete required tasks according to company business processes or work procedures.
In comparison, competency-based training programs follow frameworks that define the exact skills and tasks that field operations need and are expected to use over the course of their careers. These frameworks clearly map how and when an employee will learn job-critical skills over their development lifecycle — from new hire training through assessments, structured on-the-job training, refresher training and more.
Companies that have moved from compliance-based to competency-based training are experiencing faster time to both proficiency and qualification, resulting in a more skilled and effective workforce. Also, business leaders have greater confidence that field operations employees are equipped to do their work safely, efficiently and in compliance.
For companies where training is designed as a development lifecycle encompassing an employee’s entire career, instead of a single event, it has made all the difference in program effectiveness and business value.
4. Utilizing technology to decrease delivery costs and increase the speed to competence.
Easy-to-use and low-cost technology solutions are providing business value by decreasing the cost of training delivery and by providing critical performance support tools. Simple training technologies enable companies to embrace the more technologically savvy and less-tenured millennial workforce by equipping them with must-have knowledge and hands-on practice of skills as part of their training experience. Then they are given support tools to reinforce and elevate their performance where they need it most — on the job.
The most appropriate and impactful technology solutions will likely look different depending on the company. Geographic reach, rural versus urban environment, and the number of field employees are all factors that must be considered. The key is to address actual business needs in determining which technologies to invest in, rather than chasing the shiniest or trendiest new thing. Focus on speed, efficiency and cost savings, and then identify your top priorities to drive the highest business value.
An increasing number of companies are using employee-created, YouTube-like videos for micro-learnings and demonstrations of the application of critical skills. These types of solutions are much easier to put into place than more-sophisticated technologies, such as virtual reality, and have the capability to provide a high degree of impact quickly.
5. Balancing the investment in training across facilities, instructors and curriculum.
Far and away, the most effective training organizations balance the investment across dedicated training facilities, effective instructor facilitation and competency-based training curriculum. Most companies are moving in the right direction with training delivery — they are making substantial investments in both training facilities and delivery resources. However, many companies are not prioritizing the investment required to build a strong foundation for these delivery mechanisms to support. Even the best training delivery strategy and tools will only be minimally successful without effective training program design and curriculum. A balanced combination of all three — curriculum, facilities and instructors — set high standards for competence by ensuring that training is consistently and effectively implemented.
• Companies that use dedicated instructional design resources have stronger training programs that provide more business value, compared to companies that use instructors and other subject-matter experts to develop training.
• Investing in dedicated, training facilities that enable employees to learn and practice tasks on their field equipment (under close-to-actual working conditions) improves the quality and consistency of training delivery. It also reduces the variation in how tasks and procedures are performed.
• Most participating companies recruit instructors from the field to provide the expertise and credibility necessary for effective technical training. The highest performing training organizations have created instructor development programs to enhance an instructor’s technical knowledge, facilitation skills and familiarity with adult learning strategies.
Training organizations that use either internal instructional designers or external training experts are experiencing increased training program consistency, quality and effectiveness, and a reduction of the time spent in formal classroom training. It all improves the transfer of knowledge back to the job.