Training Professionals Tour Navy’s Only Boot Camp

Guests observed how simulation and gaming are having an effect on the investment in training today’s Sailor.

By Scott A. Thornbloom, Naval Service Training Command Public Affairs

GREAT LAKES, IL (NNS) — Training professionals from companies across the United States toured the Navy’s only boot camp to observe how civilians are trained to become Sailors at Recruit Training Command (RTC).

Hosted by the commander of Naval Services Training Command (NSTC), Rear Adm. David F. Steindl, more than 25 trainers from Trainingmagazine’s Learning 3.0 Conference in Chicago traveled to RTC in Great Lakes, IL, Oct. 6 to see the innovative ways used to train Navy recruits today.

Each year, Trainingmagazine, the leading business publication for learning and development and human resources professionals, recognizes the top 125 training organizations in the U.S. In February, the Navy was ranked seventh out of 125 training organizations at the Training 2011 Conference and Expo in San Diego. Trainingmagazine is the only organization that ranks a company’s excellence in employer-sponsored training and development programs.

On the tour, guests observed how simulation and gaming are having an effect on the investment in today’s Sailor and how the Navy continues to develop and implement new training programs.

The visit began with a tour at RTC’s premiere trainer and the Navy’s largest simulator, USS Trayer (BST 21). Trayer is a 210-foot-long Arleigh Burke-class destroyer simulator where recruits complete the last evolution of their eight weeks of boot camp training, Battle Stations, before they graduate. Battle Stations is a grueling 12-hour culmination of basic training where recruits work as a team to accomplish 17 scenarios that include putting out a fire, stopping flooding in a magazine compartment, finding and evacuating casualties from a compartment hit by a missile, loading and storing supplies, and handling mooring lines.

The trainers were told how lessons learned from actual events in recent Navy history—including the terrorist attack on USS Cole (DDG 67) in Yemen in 2000, mine damage to USS Tripoli (LPH 10) in Desert Storm in 1990, and the missile strike on USS Stark (FFG 31) in the Persian Gulf in 1987—have been incorporated into the scenarios aboard Trayer. These scenarios range from simulated missile attacks that can cause fires to flooding caused by exploding undersea mines. The training also simulates conditions similar to historic at-sea mishaps, such as the fire on the flight deck of USS Forrestal (CV 59) in 1967.

The training professionals also observed the latest simulation technology that includes sights, sounds, and smells by using Hollywood-type special effects with video screens, piped-in smells, large stereo woofer-created vibrations, and shipboard sound effects of helicopters to missile hits to create challenging and realistic training scenarios for recruits on board Trayer enclosed within a 157,000-square-foot building at RTC.

“I think it’s important to allow civilian training professionals the opportunity to see and understand the sophistication of some of this computer-aided instruction and the real-life simulation of Battle Stations,” said Phil Jones, the vice president for marketing strategy for Lakewood Media Group in Minneapolis. “These people really appreciate and are excited to see what the Navy is doing here. The commonality is that this is a group of training professionals interested in what they can learn from the Navy to bring back to their own organizations.”

Jones, who served in the Navy as a diving officer from 1967 to 1971, said he loved being back on a Navy base. “It’s very encouraging to find out how well training is done in the Navy and how sophisticated it is today, and as an American I’m proud of it,” he said.

Along with the tour of Trayer and Battle Stations, the group also toured one of the 13 new recruit ships, or barracks, on RTC. While inside the recruit barracks, USS Triton, the group saw how each is set up like a ship with galleys, classrooms, berthing compartments, and offices. They observed how the daily routine for a recruit is similar to the routine on board a ship or submarine in the fleet. As trainers, though, it was in the classroom that they had the chance to view some of the new computer-based gaming recruits are using to prepare them for Battle Stations and for the fleet.

For three years, recruits have been using video computer gaming as a training tool to prepare them to navigate around a ship, stop compartment flooding, and fight fires. Virtual Environments for Ship and Shore Experiential Learning (VESSEL) is the game-based training system that all recruits train with at RTC. The training professionals were given the opportunity to observe recruits operating VESSEL.

At the beginning of VESSEL, a recruit is introduced with a short story of how he or she has transferred from Naval Station Great Lakes to their first ship in Norfolk, VA. After boarding the ship, the Sailor enters the “game” in a first-person role-playing scenario and must report to his or her repair locker after the general quarters, or “battle stations,” alarm has sounded. From the repair locker, the Sailor is sent out as an investigator and directed to look for a possible flood or fire in a certain space. The recruit then is graded on how well he or she responds to the situation and how well they work to solve the situation.

“I think we all are impressed with the organization and the sophistication of the training, especially VESSEL, and how it applies to Trayer and Battle Stations,” Jones said. “The magnitude of the training effort is just phenomenal.”

Tim Higgins, sales training manager for Sentry Insurance in Stevens Point, WI, said he was impressed with the tour and seeing how training objectives at RTC are followed through by using reinforcement, practice and then applications.

“It was incredible to see the planning that goes into the training of more than 35,000 recruits annually and how it all comes out in the end to create a Sailor,” Higgins said. “I also saw quite a bit of this training that I might be able to take back to my company and use. I saw how each step in the training here is clearly defined, how it all fits together and then being able to practice it. I can see how I could put our salespeople through similar situations where I teach them the parts, then put it all together and have them simulate the situation before implementing it.”

One of the last parts of the tour was of the USS Missouri Simulated Arms Marksmanship Trainer (SAMT), where recruits first become familiarized firing a weapon. Many in the group said they enjoyed firing the simulated laser-guided, air-compressed, 9-millimeter handguns and 12-gauge shotguns.

“This was my first time shooting anything,” said Tracey Stokely, an instructional designer for Cincom Systems, Inc., in Cincinnati. “I'm amazed by how organized everything is here and how fast they are able to get everyone through the training.”

Steindl thanked the training professionals for being part of the tour, invited them to return for the weekly Pass-In-Review (PIR) graduation and told the group the Navy will continue to invest in simulation and gaming.

“We feel it is having a profound effect on our Sailors,” Steindl said. “We have trained more than 200,000 Sailors on Trayer over the last four years, and we have good qualitative feedback from the fleet that Sailors are better trained now, and we think it is because of this capstone event aboard Trayer. Training is our asymmetric advantage, and we have had 150 nations send their people to U.S. Navy training. We think that’s because it’s the best in the world.”

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A few of the Navy tour participants later e-mailed their feedback and takeaways from the tour:

“When we think of the stereotypical military training at boot camps presented in movies and TV, we visualize officers yelling at recruits and working them so hard as if they are trying to get them to quit and to not succeed. At Naval Station Great Lakes, I heard described all the measures put in place during boot camp to help each recruit succeed! Recruits not only have physical training, they also complete more than 20 in-depth classroom and simulation training courses that prepare them with the basics of what they are getting ready to face when they go to their first ship.

We observed a few recruits who demonstrated one of the simulation training courses. We saw how it looked similar to a video game, but on closer inspection, I saw sailors walking through a simulated ship answering tough questions, completing tasks, and making decisions about safety. If they did something incorrectly, their character suffered consequences (such as getting electrocuted because they forgot to turn off the electric before walking into an unsafe flooded area). These simulations have been designed with great detail so recruits get used to knowing what the inside of ships look like and how to perform tasks. These simulations make it easier for them to navigate through ships and know what to do in the future. They go to great lengths to keep the recruits safe during training and after training. Like one of the officers said during our tour, it would be a waste of our tax dollars to have injured recruits. So they take great precautions in all the training exercises that they do to keep recruits and sailors safe.

One issue the Naval Station comes up against, like many of us in the corporate world, is having different departments wanting to add more to initial training for “new employees.” In the case of boot camp, they often get requests to add more courses to boot camp. However, they only have eight weeks for this training. They explain to the requesters that adding another course means they will have to eliminate a current course. The eight-week training agenda they have is full to capacity now. They often recommend the additional suggested training courses be offered later in the sailors’ career when they would be more effective. Training on too many topics in boot camp (or onboarding training) can lead to people being overwhelmed and not remembering everything that is required, thus making the training ineffective. The right amount of training needs to be given at the right time.

The recruits in the U.S. Navy go through rigorous and extremely effective training that makes our sailors prepared for the real world. I am convinced that we have the best- trainedNavy in the world!

A tour takeaway: When looking at onboarding training at our corporations, maybe we need to rethink how prepared our newest employees are when they start new jobs at our companies. Are we giving them the basic training they need to succeed? Or are we throwing them into the fire? Maybe we should conduct more effective onboarding training to get better and quicker results from new employees.”

—Tracey Stokely, lead instructional designer, Cincom Systems, Inc. (Cincinnati)

“Witnessing the simulation and focused training plan for Navy recruits reminded me of a couple of key items related to implementing an effective training plan: When structuring learning for adults—whether it be the military or any other focus—it is important to remember it is not about the training; it’s about performance. Simulation can be one of the most direct methods of transferring practice to performance. It is easy to get caught up in developing various training platforms that lose sight of the outcome: job performance. In this case the Navy remembered to incorporate multiple senses in the experience that helped to transfer what was learned in the classroom to a life-like situation not soon to be forgotten. This is an important lesson for corporate performance teams. It is important that we look to incorporate training methods that attach to more than one of the learners’ senses. This will help to make training stick.

I found myself relating directly to the challenge the Navy has in limiting the focus of the basic training plan to just the essential tasks required by a sailor. Outside influences from both within and outside clamor constantly to add additional objectives and non-essential tasks to the training and development plan. The Navy trainers shared with us that they also struggle to clarify and communicate the development plan to stakeholders and partners without adding the proverbial kitchen sink. ‘We cannot train everything the new recruit needs to know. However, we can build a platform from which they can build knowledge and skill as their naval experience continues,’ they explained. So often as trainers we try to include everything learners need to know and do without considering spacing learning deliverables over a reasonable amount of time.

A tour takeaway: I noted the value teamwork played in the performance outcomes. Much of what naval recruits learn on their own is amplified as they apply it in a real-life situation by relying on fellow recruits. This is the critical point at which a learning experience becomes real world and real work—a recruit becomes a sailor. My challenge is to incorporate this method of learning at a corporate level with the same amount of emotion and engagement. My learners need to know it is not just a job but a career. We all perform better when we realize the performance we offer is part of a bigger cause or mission.”

—Tim Higgins, CPCU, AU, AIS, manager, Sales and Product Training

“What I observed during the tour of the Navy’s Recruit Training Command echoed the topics covered in the Learning 3.0 Conference. The Navy’s use of instructor-led training to educated participants on theory and concept, followed by simulating that content increases the transfer of learning to the recruit.

The techniques the Navy uses for simulating content such as using gaming, virtual worlds, and hands-on application can be easily adapted to work in a civilian corporate world. Gaming and virtual worlds can be used to foster collaboration across a geographically disperse organization, act as an online conference room, and facilitate lessons learned or brainstorming sessions. Simulations work well in leadership development. Simulating giving an employee constructive feedback during an annual review or administering progressive discipline allows the leader to practice those difficult conversations in a safe and controlled environment.

A tour takeaway: We can all learn from the model the Navy is using. Teach the theory and content during one session and then follow up with safe controlled practice. This model will increase learning transfer and result in better-performing employees and leadership throughout any organization.”

Douglas M. Stover, BS, MBA, Manager, CareSource University

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.