Filling the Energy Workforce Skills Gap

Simulation technology is an easy way to bring fundamentals and theories for plant operations into real-world applications.

By Phil Polefrone, Senior Vice President, Workforce Solutions, GSE Systems, Inc.

The 21st century marks the beginning of a difficult transition for the energy industry. Global power demands continue to rise, driving the construction of power plants worldwide. At the same time, experienced, knowledgeable engineers and plant operators are leaving the industry in unprecedented numbers. Recruiting experienced, skilled replacements is difficult at best, so the energy sector needs to identify and deploy training tools that will increase the training effectiveness of new workers while reducing the time it takes to train them to be competent.

As an example, “The nuclear energy industry is in the beginning stages of significant workforce transition, with 39 percent of its personnel eligible to retire by 2016 and the need to replace up to 25,000 employees,” said Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior manager for workforce policy and programs (Nuclear Energy Institute, http://nei.org/news--events-member/nuclear-energy-overview/nuclear-industry-invests-record-funding-for-education-as-federal-support-withers). Canada’s oil and gas sector will need to add more than 9,500 skilled workers (http://geospatial.blogs.com/geospatial/2012/07/aging-workforce-challenges-in-canadas-oil-and-gas-sector.html). Other countries, such as China, India, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, are faced with similarly daunting statistics.

Investing in Education

As Baby Boomers retire, institutional skills and knowledge often are lost. An aging workforce, combined with the lack of qualified applicants, is creating a global need for quick and effective recruitment and training practices.

Many in the energy industry are calling for greater investments in education. Part of this effort focuses on facilitating training after graduation from formal education programs. Continuing the development of graduates with onboarding courses, vocational training, and job-focused training programs has increased to prepare book-smart students for technical jobs in the energy industry. Doing so can potentially eliminate a $5.2 billion annual loss in the industry, according to a Boyden study—$3 billion of which is directly linked to the skills gap (Boyden Spotlight newsletter, Vol. 7, Issue 1, March 2009).

Developing efficient, customized training programs for educating new plant engineers, operators, and maintainers is critical for minimizing downtime and lost productivity. In addition, programs need to align with the younger generation’s own learning habits. Study after study points toward the same conclusions: Interactive training tools that include dynamic visual elements and readily accessible data are more efficient and yield better long-term results, especially for younger generations. Leveraging these elements reinforces material and engages trainees so they can truly fill the skills gap throughout all energy sectors.

3-D visualization and simulation, the most current interactive tools, immerse trainees in virtual environments where they can experience life-like workplace scenarios. In these virtual environments, trainees have the opportunity to work through potentially dangerous situations without risking harm to themselves or others, and without risking potential damage to a plant’s physical infrastructure or causing equipment downtime. Efficiency in learning highly critical skills can prevent future deficits in plant production and safety standards.

Real-time, high-fidelity simulation increasingly is recognized as a positive long-term investment for building and maintaining a skilled workforce. Simulations today can be run on standard PCs or laptops using universally available operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, UNIX, and Linux. This has helped make simulation-based training more readily available. On the student’s side, this reduces the time commitment for completing a program. For the company, it minimizes the costs and resources needed for essential training (“The Challenge of Change,” A. Lekich & M. Mirshah, Hydrocarbon Engineering, April 2003).

Lower costs and easier access also have allowed companies to use simulation-based training where they would not have in the past. Universal (generic) power plant simulations have made it cost-feasible for organizations to simultaneously implement multiple training tracks across various job verticals.

How and Why Simulation Is Effective

Born during the digital revolution of the ’80s and ’90s and dubbed “digital natives,” the emerging workforce has a keen understanding of, and preference toward, technology in the workplace. A 2010 study by Accenture shows that 77 percent of Millennials in the U.S. believe technology helps improve their quality of work. These statistics indicate that simulation as an advanced technology plays an important role in engaging Millennials during their professional development training.

Research indicates that these feelings aren’t just about “being comfortable” with technology-based learning, but are actual facts that affect how they learn. A study from the National Academy of Sciences reports, “In order to deeply understand a topic, learners not only need to know relevant facts, theories, and applications, they also must make sense of the topic through organization of those ideas into a framework (schema) of understanding. The development of schema requires that students learn topics in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them” (“How People Learn,” Bransford et al., National Academy of Sciences, 2000).

Interactive multimedia instruction gives young engineers the resources to learn basic plant operations and progress toward more complex processes. Multiple studies have confirmed that for higher-order skills, interactive multimodal learning yielded a 12 percentile increase in effectiveness compared to non-interactive multimodal learning (“Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says,” Cisco Systems, Inc., 2008). Simulation also clearly conveys information via a preferred medium to keep trainees motivated toward course completion. Incoming workers will have the knowledge to handle on-the-job situations with as little operational downtime as possible. Human error is greatly reduced, while total production for the industry is optimized.

Flexibility is key to a successful training program. Individualized or instructor-led simulation lets trainees develop at their own pace. Used in tandem with stand-alone or Web-based tutorials, simulators reinforce material as additional skill-building exercises. Flexibility also allows proctors more time for quality one-on-one instruction with students. Tests provide instant results for analysis, which instructors can use immediately to adjust programsfor enhanced employee performance (“The Challenge of Change”).

Educating Generations to Come

As a younger, technologically savvy generation takes its place in the workforce, simulation-based training in the energy industry will play an increasingly crucial role. The industry already has taken a significant step in educating its workforce, molding the classroom into an interactive, realistic learning environment rather than a static and rigid course experience. Simulation technology is an easy way to bring fundamentals and theories for plant operations into real-world applications. This is a crucial aspect to ensuring the new workers are properly prepared, and moving forward, it will be a driving force behind closing the skills gap.

Justifying Simulation

Switching to simulation or supplementing existing training programs with simulation technology is easier to justify than ever before. Here are a few of the facts that favor simulation training.

  • In 2010, companies spent an average of 10 percent of their training outlay on technology (“The Corporate Learning Factbook 2011,” Karen O’Leonard, Bersin & Associates, 2010).
  • The cost of simulation has fallen by more than 60 percent over the last two decades.
  • The accuracy, fidelity, and realism of simulation are better than ever, providing realistic learning experiences and better training outcomes.
  • Increasingly powerful workplace computers make it possible to run simulation virtually anywhere and increase flexibility for distance learning.
  • Simulation reduces time to competency.

Download two simulation images below.

Phil Polefrone is the senior vice president of Workforce Solutions for GSE Systems, Inc. (Sykesville, MD). He has more than 35 years of military and private-sector engineering, management, and training experience. Polefrone is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and was a Nuclear Submarine Captain. He received his M.B.A. from The Citadel and an M.S. in Engineering from The Catholic University of America. For more information, visit http://www.gses.com.

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