Trouble attracting qualified O&M personnel? Get new ideas at CCUG’s workforce development workshop

The loss of experienced deck-plates personnel has left a significant void in O&M knowledge at some plants. Despite the “ageing workforce” warnings, even today little is being done by many owner/operators to capture the know-how of veterans before they walk out the door. And with the military shrinking, the seemingly bottomless pool of talented US Navy vets is rapidly evaporating.

Immediate need. What to do to fill the manpower gap depends on your particular situation and how much time is available to implement a solution—temporary or “permanent.” To begin, assume an immediate need. If your strategy is to run some advertising to identify candidates, it could take six months or more to bring someone onboard. Making calls through your personal network probably is more efficient.

What seems to be happening with greater frequency these days is “raiding” another plant’s personnel. But this can be expensive. Expect to pay a signing bonus and a salary increase, provide healthcare and 401K plan, five weeks of vacation, etc. If a move is required, you likely will be asked by your new hire to also purchase his or her home and pay moving expenses. These are table stakes today.

There are other solutions of course. You might bring back a recent retiree on an interim basis, or engage a third-party operator, which might have a flexible labor pool. The latter may be a necessary action by the owner if you don’t meet staffing expectations.

Intermediate need. If you’re a capable hands-on manager and relatively sure one or more of your employees will retire in the next year or two, consider bringing in at ground level a recent graduate from one of the several specialty powerplant technician and engineering programs that have been established nationwide in recent years. Colleges offering associate, and higher, degrees, you might want to learn more about include Fort Myers (Fla) Technical College, Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT), and Idaho State University’s Energy Systems Technology & Education Center (ESTEC).

If you are concerned about possible future staffing challenges, attend the 2015 annual meeting of the Combined Cycle Users Group (CCUG) and come up to speed on how others are dealing with similar issues. A special two-hour workshop, “Workforce Challenges and Changing Paradigms,” moderated by CCUG Chair Dr Robert Mayfield, an expert on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and CTE (career and technical education) programs in middle and high schools, will expand your knowledge on (1) new schools preparing students for powerplant entry-level positions, (2) how to make in-plant and online training more effective, and new training tools for the millennial age.

Thumbnails of a few of the new schools training your future employees for productive careers in the electric-power industry are provided below. Add them to your existing list of maritime colleges, Bismarck State College, etc, for recruiting purposes. But don’t stop here. Call technical schools and colleges in your area to see if they offer courses of study that are compatible with your employment needs. If not, ask if there would be interest in starting such a program in cooperation with industry. The obvious goal is to build a local labor pool. CCUG workshop participants will explain how to do this successfully.

Fort Myers Technical College, an accredited public post-secondary career and technical education center, developed its “Turbine Generator Maintenance, Inspection, and Repair” curriculum with President David Branton and his team at nearby TGM-Turbine Generator Maintenance Inc.

OSUIT launched its two-year Power Plant Technology Program in 2007. Instructor Terry Hanzel, who has powerplant and oil-and-gas industry experience, told the editors that about 15 students are accepted into the program annually; typically a dozen will graduate with an Associate of Applied Science Degree. Motivation for the program was provided by American Electric Power (AEP) which believed a technical vacuum would be created by looming retirements. It approached OSUIT with the idea of developing a collaborative program between industry and academia to address the coming need for quality technicians.

AEP and OSUIT sought out other power producers in the area to work with the institute’s instructors and administrators to ensure the curriculum, training methods, and equipment remained current and were properly aligned with the latest technologies and methods used in powerplants.

A Power Plant Technology Advisory Board (sidebar) was formed, comprised mostly of Oklahoma plant managers, training directors, and HR professionals. Today, virtually all of the large utility and IPP generating plants in the state are represented on the board, chaired by Rick Shackelford, plant manager of Green Country Energy. Chad Jester, a board member and Operations Manager for Oneta Power LLC, will participate in the CCUG workshop as a panelist.

OSUIT’s Power Plant Technology Advisory Board

American Electric Power Co/Public Service Co of Oklahoma: Mark Barton, Terry McGee
EthosEnergy Power Plant Services LLC: Chad Jester
Grand River Dam Authority: Ken Egnor, Stacy Johnson
NAES Corp/J-Power USA Generation LP: Rick Shackelford
OGE Energy Corp: Steve Cray, Elsie Milkowski
Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority: Andrea Simmons
OSUIT: Roy Achemire, Terry Hanzel, Abu Hasan, Mike Pierce, Bob Pope
Siemens Energy Inc: Mitch Hurt
Tenaska Inc: Ed Going
Western Farmers Electric Co-op: Mandi Wilson

Workforce Fig 1

1. OSUIT students benefit from field instruction at Green Country Energy

“We have industry directly participating in the program with curriculum development,” Shackelford continued, “donating equipment for training purposes, hosting new-student open houses at powerplants, serving as guest speakers and instructors, and offering paid internships.”   The plant manager described the OSUIT curriculum as “combining the science and technology of power production with realistic assignments, hands-on instruction in state-of-the-art lab spaces, and internships at powerplants prior to graduation.” What makes OSUIT different than most technician development programs, he explained, is its formal degree program coupled with real-world field experience.

There are 10 powerplants within about an hour’s drive of the school and they are visited regularly to reinforce classroom lessons (Fig 1). Plus, each student participates in a 15-week plant internship after successfully completing the first year of study.      

“The internship experience is where students take what they’ve learned in the classroom and labs to a higher level and apply it to real-world situations,” Shackelford said. “It’s also where they learn if powerplant technology is where they want to build their careers.” Hanzel added, “The transformation seen in the students after their internship is amazing. They return to the classroom with the realization that what they are learning will be used on the job, confident that the education they are receiving will help them land a meaningful job at a good salary in a secure job market.”

One recent graduate said everyone he graduated with from OSUIT has a job. That helped him convince his brother to enroll in the program. Another grad added that he had a friend with a four-year degree who couldn’t find a job; the OSUIT grad sent out three resumes, got two responses, two interviews, and two offers.

At the conclusion of the internships, the OSUIT instructors ask plant managers and supervisory personnel for feedback on what aspects of the curriculum should be improved. Shackelford said this information exchange is vital to the success of the program given demands for technology advancement, the impact of regulatory oversight, etc. The instructors also maintain an open communications network with graduates to get their thoughts and ideas from the workplace.

Workforce Fig 2

2. Lab facilities are what make ISU’s powerplant training program special

ISU ESTEC’s Executive Director/Chair Lawrence Beaty has a long-term association with powerplant equipment and training. With Beaty as the driving force, Idaho State University joined with Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s leading center for nuclear R&D, to train plant operators: The lab’s experiment with hiring engineers for this purpose had failed.

ISU partnered with Idaho Power, PacifiCorp, and others, received funding from the Dept of Labor, and ISU provided a building to launch a two-year program that would award Associate of Applied Science Degrees to successful students. The goal was to design a course of study to train students to operate all types of generating plants. The first class graduated in 2007; today, nearly 150 students are enrolled in the program at any one time.

Beaty, who also will participate in the CCUG workshop, explained to the editors how the ESTEC program fits in the total scheme of operator training in the modern world. He looked back to powerplant I&C shops in the mid-70s/80s when there might have been a dozen technicians on staff; today, Beaty says, there’s about one-third that many, all with excellent skills learned incrementally over careers spanning decades.

However, informal on-the-job training is no longer a viable way to learn. Technology has gotten too complex and changes are occurring too rapidly, and there aren’t enough people on staff to train you. Even if there were, it takes a very long time—if ever—to acquire the required foundational principles in an informal setting.

On the flip side, formal engineering education has migrated to virtually theory-only at many institutions. One reason: Lab facilities are expensive; theory is inexpensive (relatively) to teach. A result of the changing paradigm is electrical engineers who can’t read one-line diagrams, maintenance engineers who can’t pack valves, and mechanical engineers who don’t know what P&IDs are let alone how to read them.

ESTEC fits between on-the-job and formal engineering programs. At ISU, it’s all about application engineering—that is, the application of fundamental engineering principles to solve problems, not design equipment. You need system knowledge in today’s world, Beaty says, not specific equipment knowledge. This is why students in his program do cross-discipline work.

Look at Fig 2 and you quickly get a sense of the ESTEC program. Students learn safe work practices and take basic theory and basic math, but not to solve for “x,” rather to calculate the flow through a valve, across an orifice, etc. The program is laboratory-intensive—three hours daily, five days a week.

STEM, CTE. Beaty is the perfect segue to the work being done by Dr Mayfield as vice chair of the Virginia Career Education Foundation, to help develop and promote STEM and CTE programs in his home state. Beaty stressed how critical a solid foundation in mathematics was to success in the ESTEC program. Applicants are required to have appropriate math skills before enrollment is possible. For those who don’t, ISU offers a remedial program, complete with math workshops and tutors, made possible by STEM grants.

For its program, ISU wants applicants with passing grades in advanced algebra, Lego League experience, etc, who enjoy using their hands and are enthusiastic about learning. Building on this enthusiasm is what ESTEC is all about: To make students aware of the many opportunities open to them. The vast majority of jobs in the power world today do not require engineering degrees, Beaty said.

In effect, Dr Mayfield’s work, and that of others like him, is critical to the ready availability of human capital for workforce development. Without a strong STEM foundation, acceptance into programs such as those offered by FMTC, OSUIT, and ISU ESTEC to create a skilled labor pool for the industry is not possible. It behooves industry to get involved proactively.

To learn more about what you and your company can do to help put middle- and high-school students on a path to a financially and professionally rewarding career, access “Building a 21st century workforce begins with education,” and other articles written by Dr Mayfield searchable on the CCJ website.

In-plant training. Having noted the fallacy of relying on on-the-job training to develop the world-class O&M team required today to assure financial success in the generation business, recognize, too, that formal education in an institution of higher learning is not a panacea. There also is need for periodic training in-plant to address deficiencies, “connect” a team having undergone recent personnel changes, stay abreast of technology changes, etc.

Calpine Corp’s Tony Wiseman, a former CCUG chair, will participate in the workshop and share what he has learned in more than three decades of teaching and managing training for the US Navy, Progress Energy, and Calpine. Wiseman also will update the group on the effectiveness of new training tools.

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