Systems Integration / Optimization

Simulators to streamline operator training at Suncor

More effective program is designed to address attrition, relative inexperience

By Paul Studebaker, chief editor, Control

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Suncor Energy Inc.'s Fort McMurray, Alberta, plant is five hours north of the nearest capital (Edmonton) and eight hours away from corporate headquarters (Calgary). There's snow around for seven months of the year. Yet a modest house costs $800,000.

"It's hard to get skilled workers to move to the area," said Derwin Bonney, Suncor fixed plants simulator training supervisor. It's also hard to retain them: The plant has 290 employees and an annual operator attrition rate of 13%. "We've lost an average of 34 operators per year over the past six years, with an average loss of seven years experience per person," Bonney said. As a result, 45% of the current workforce has been on the job for less than three years.

Facility operations include oil sands development and upgrading, primary fractionation and secondary production of synthetic naptha, diesel fuel and gasoline. To address the impending skills shortage, a Rapid Results Team (RRT) was formed with employees from multiple disciplines, including operators, to devise a plan for making training more efficient and effective. The resulting plan includes:

  • Purchasing a fourth simulator for the Upgrader;
  • A hardware refresh to remaining simulators;
  • Model updates to the remaining  simulators;
  • Create a new training program to ensure a competent workforce;
  • Have resources and tools built to help with training;
  • Have a plan to always keep program up to date.

The plan is now being executed. "Honeywell is up in Fort McMurray, doing updates as we speak," said Bonney, adding, "I got us this far, and now I'm going to retire."

Before the simulator upgrades and new training program, "Simulator time was inconsistent because simulator availability was limited," said Jasline Atwal, fixed plants simulator training supervisor (succeeding Bonney). "Now it's consistent—the same for all operator trainees."

Training from Peers and Computers

The new program uses computer-based training (CBT), the simulators and peer training to improve both the speed and rigor of the training process. Candidates for panel operators must be fully qualified as field operators on all the relevant units. When they apply for panel training, they first attend a training expectations meeting, where they agree to a "training expectations letter," a document that lays out expectations of the trainee, trainers and supervisors.

The trainees first work with a simulator specialist, who trains them using a simulator and administers prequalification, Level I and Level II testing. Trainees who struggle are given multiple opportunities and, where indicated, specialized training to address specific weaknesses and accommodate different learning styles.

Each simulator lesson plan includes a description, objective, initial conditions, instructor and operator actions, expected changes, consequences and trainee evaluation. Using the simulator allows trainees to learn scenarios of common and uncommon events, lets them physically run through different scenarios and react to them in real time on the board without affecting the real plant, and helps trainers and the trainees to better assess their skills.

Trainees who pass the Level II exam then "shadow" an operator "to learn how the job is really done," said Atwal. When they are deemed competent, can score well on a final simulator skills exam and pass a written, multiple-choice test administered by the learning coordinator, they are awarded a certificate as a qualified panel operator.

The average time to train an operator has been about 1,500 hours. The company's energy and utilities division has had success with reducing this to about 700 hours, Atwal said. "The new program will qualify operators more efficiently and safely. It provides consistency across shifts, measured competency and a consistent, established base knowledge."