Getting employee training right

In our April cover story, Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, talks about the state of the art in training for the automation profession and how it is evolving to fit the needs of process control end users.

By Dan Hebert

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Finally, some companies see training as indispensable, and can’t imagine corporate life without it. “What would happen to our company if it was staffed with untrained employees?” asks Jim Reizner, section head of corporate engineering at Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati. “The answer is simple—our company would fall apart. We need to invent new products, manufacture them, and sell them to our customers. We need to delight consumers. If this doesn’t continue to happen, we’re out of business. To be able to execute each of the many steps required to ensure that we continue to delight our consumers with our products, we need highly trained people. There is no other way for us.”

Training Challenges
Good training isn’t easy, and several obstacles need to be overcome. Giving an employee time away from work for education is the chief challenge for companies that wish to train their staffs. “Our biggest automation training challenge is being short an employee while that person is away at training,” says Lehigh Cement’s Wilkey.

Money comes in a close second. “Due to the shortage of operating staff and the relative cost, many process end users would prefer not to send their staff for extensive outside training,” according to Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group.

Many vendors provide low-cost demo systems that allow their customers to train on actual hardware and software. (Photo courtesy of Wago.)"


In addition to time and money, the timing of training is a challenge. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation. “We have to use training right away for it to be effective,” says Jeff Silvernale, senior development engineer at Vertellus Health and Specialty Products, Indianapolis. “If we’re trained on something that doesn’t need our input for the next few months, we don’t remember much and often have to look in the manual and call our vendor’s customer service.”

Keeping up is another problem. “The biggest training challenge is staying current with a particular platform or vendor software package. Vendors continue to offer new software revisions or new add-on packages, and it’s difficult to stay current on everything,” says Phil Murray, principal at system integrator FeedForward.

Be Specific
The best training is very specific to an end user’s particular wants and needs, but this is also the most expensive and time-consuming type of training course to prepare. Consequently, many vendors present generic material, so users have a hard time finding training specific to their industry and their processes. “We often find that vendors’ automation training classes are too generic, and don’t cover our specific industry,” reports Waufle of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

On-the-job training is surely the most prevalent form of education in any industry, but such training really can’t be effective without the help of mentors. However, providing the right mentors at the right time and place can be quite difficult. “Being a global company, we have many new smaller organizations worldwide that are quite remote from our major bases in the U.S. and Europe. Training these people is a challenge because there may be no local people to serve as mentors, or because of the remoteness of the locations and cost of travel for training,” says Reizner of Procter & Gamble.

How to Train
First, how not to train: Get a large group of people of widely divergent skills in a room for eight hours, and subject them to a PowerPoint presentation/lecture that covers topics not specific to their needs. Make sure the training is off-site so that each employee is away from work for a long time and expense is maximized. Don’t test on what was learned, and don’t apply the training to situations in the students’ plants.

Sound like courses you’ve attended? Fortunately, there are ways to avoid common mistakes.

Web-based training minimizes the impact on work schedules. “A trend is to provide PC and web-based simulation system training,” says ARC’s Resnick. “The training materials, many of which take advantage of interactive simulation software, can be made available anywhere there’s a PC and an Internet connection.”


Online courses that let students study at their convenience are popular. (Photo courtesy of Accu-Tech.)

Providing courses via the web can allow each trainee to schedule his or her training at the most convenient times and places. Advanced interactive web-based training can also allow students to proceed at their own pace.

Customization of training is a huge time-saver because it’s more efficient. “We train two distinct groups in separate classes—operations personnel and technical/engineering personnel,” reports Murray of FeedForward. “We teach operators fundamental loop monitoring, manipulation skills and display navigation—all using actual plant applications as the training environment in an offline system. Engineering training covers system administration and control configuration. We use controller emulation in a PC and emphasize hands-on lab learning versus extensive lecture.”

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