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Online Training: Learning through the Web

After initiating a generic internet-based training programme, a United States utility, Minnesota Power, has been pleasantly surprised to find its employees are not only keen to learn hard, but also to develop specific web-based training opportunities for themselves.

Julie Aho, Minnesota Power and Allete Company, USA

A major issue for many power companies is locating, hiring and training a well-qualified workforce. The ongoing retirements of seasoned power plant personnel, such as operators, mechanics, instrumentation and control (I&C) technicians, electricians and other skilled workers, is a serious issue across the country and internationally.

To meet this challenge, leading power companies are offering their employees various types of “blended learning”. Blended learning simply means that combining multiple training methodologies, for example, classroom training, structured on-the-job training, web-based training and other methods, produces a more effective training program. A blended approach has shown that costs will be lower, the level of knowledge comprehension will be higher and the time to complete the training will be shorter.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Minnesota Power’s (MP) operations training administrator, John Batchelder. Batchelder is based at MP’s Boswell Energy Center and is a 29-year MP veteran who initially gained operations expertise while serving in the Navy. John is currently using a Web-based ‘learning portal’ (General Physics’ GPiLearn portal) along with 140 other power companies to manage the training and qualification of new and existing MP employees.

Screenshots of various GPiLearn Power Fundamentals online lessons
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John’s experience has taught him that people are task-oriented in fulfilling job responsibilities – sometimes they can overlook how vital their work is to co-workers. For this reason, he says, training offered to MP employees needs to include the big-picture fundamentals on how electricity is generated. “You can’t put the roof on the walls of your career home before you build the foundation,” said Batchelder.

Something for everyone

MP established the Batchelder’s operations training administrator position in 1999. As soon as he got the job, Batchelder began working to improve training opportunities for Boswell employees, with a philosophy that there should be something for everyone, providing a variety of opportunities from beginner to advanced levels.

In 2004, John’s focus expanded to meet his department goal of enhancing training at all MP plants by December 2005. Alan Hodnik, senior vice president of MP’s operations, also wanted to develop an enhanced growth and development plan for the role of production coordinator.

Since classroom training was becoming more challenging to conduct due to staffing levels and scheduling issues, John investigated the potential benefits associated with web-based training (WBT) to help improve the reach and cost-effectiveness of MP’s training programs. From just nine per cent at the turn of the century, WBT has grown to account for a third of corporate training delivey and MP wanted to take advantage of its benefits.

In conjunction with his supervisor, Madelen Schuemannn, manager of thermal business operations, Batchelder analyzed several WBT vendor offerings. After reviewing the capabilities and curricula of each company, the GPiLearn System was selected as being best suited for their needs, which were based on price, quality and the applicability of training modules.

At first, MP offered employees the chance to sign up for 100 company-paid training seats. Since then, employee interest in the GPiLearn Web-based curricula on power generation fundamentals has increased substantially and MP increased the number of training seats to 200. Due to the efforts led by Batchelder and MP’s training site coordinators, as well as feedback from employees, the GPiLearn training content has been augmented with MP-specific training developed internally.

Employees are able to tap into a total of 3200 lessons and tests from a range of topics, including combined cycle fundamentals, heat rate, boiler water chemistry, environmental compliance and mechanical maintenance. MP’s site training coordinators can create specific curriculums for different job positions (or levels), then track and administer the progress of each employee through the GPiLearn portal.

Widening employee horizons

To augment the core training content, Batchelder and the site coordinators consulted with a GP training specialist to develop several training curriculums. As employees complete the lessons at their own pace, they build their knowledge base and progress to the next level. For example, a craft worker can advance from basic mathematic skills to more specific topics like gauges and instrumentation.

Corporate online learning has enjoyed steady growth in recent years
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Batchelder said, “The training helps them handle their specific jobs better because they now have power generation basics under their belts, they also have that big-picture view. Instead of just recalibrating an instrument, they know why the recalibration is important to their plant’s operation.”

Each department of every power plant has specific training needs. Take I&C. Here, MP’s training development group, consisting of senior I&C personnel from MP plants, spend time traveling to each plant, discussing training needs specific to each location, and then creating a lesson plan germane not just for that I&C department, but for that I&C department in that location.

Interest in generation-wide learning has also led to the creation of an operator apprenticeship position. “In operations, the apprenticeship program was revitalized and that created more interest in training,” Batchelder said. “Those of us leading the training development initiatives learned a lot from watching how well the fuels area had earlier created an apprenticeship for a fuels technician job; they really broke the ice for all of us in how to create employee training levels.”

When MP employees successfully complete an apprenticeship, they are also certified by the state as demonstrating expertise in their crafts. This means they can take certification status with them wherever their career takes them; to another position at MP or a utility across the United States.

Testing, testing

Tests are included for employees enrolled in the WBT program. The industry standard is for people to retain 70 per cent of the training they go through, and this is the same at MP. If employees fail to the pass at the first attempt, they can opt to take the test again. Both employee and supervisor are also able to check on the employee’s progression through training levels at any time.

Supervisors say that they like the new approach. First of all, employees have demonstrated interest. The coal fired Boswell plant in Cohasset alone has 81 people enrolled. Most interest has been demonstrated by operators, fuels and instrumentation crafts employees, comprising 99 per cent of the 138 employees across Minnesota Power who have registered. Second, anyone regardless of their department may enroll.

Third, it has inspired several supervisors to contact John Batchelder to ask whether additional training can be developed to help their employees achieve licenses required for certain MP positions. Fourth, strong interest among supervisors of new MP engineers has been shown to ensure that their staff gets teh appropriate, specific power fundamentals training.

Fifth and finally, it has sparked development of more apprenticeships, as well as new training development for specific apprenticeships. For example, Mike Hambrock, general manager of thermal operations and Tom Hughes, supervisor of hydro operations, contacted Batchelder to develop and create a hydro operations apprenticeship. The group is now developing that apprenticeship along with appropriate Web-based training curriculum.

Utility training tie-up

Through General Physic’s “co-funding” option, Minnesota Power, Ameren, Colorado Springs Utilities and other electricity companies are financially supporting creation of more GP training modules.

Minnesota Power employees have gone on to develop training courses
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“It’s good for all parties involved,” Batchelder said. “GP can offer more training to all their clients, and co-funding utilities can get the training they want to develop for their own employees.” For example, GP worked with Nalco to add their water quality courses to GPiLearn in the third quarter of 2006. Additional training programs for hydro plant operators, wind farm technicians, waste-to-energy plant operators and other job positions were available in late 2006 and the first quarter of 2007.

Looking back over what has happened in just over one year, it is gratifying for Minnesota Power to see employees responding to, and stepping up to help develop, more training opportunities. As John Batchelder explains, “We dropped a pebble into a pond a year ago and it’s just incredible how the ripples have spread.”