Training & Education

School fees

September 2009 Training & Education

We are in it deeper than we have been for decades – everyone playing ostrich, wondering whether to believe the doom-and-gloom prophets – sound familiar?

Company cut-backs across the board and you ask us to approve a training budget – have you gone mad? Sorry, training has been cut too!

OK, so the logical thing is, let us wait for the upturn before we start our training programme again, right? After all, we will have money then, and we will be able to afford that luxury which everyone gives lip service to – people are our greatest asset, right?

Most of us probably know how difficult it is to get training approved, even in the best of times. Trouble is, the best of times are not usually the best of times to get people properly trained. Production takes precedence over everything, and even when people managed to get booked on training courses, they get cancelled at a moment’s notice because there is a breakdown/project glitch/urgent commissioning job, whatever. Much of this is because you are short of the people you need because they got laid off in the last downturn.

Chicken or egg?

Regardless of the situation we are in now, boom came before the bust: the highest steel/platinum/gold/coal prices we have seen and that situation existed for years before crises hit the world.

When are we going to train, then? Remember the skills shortage? It has not gone away! We still need the artisans/technicians/engineers we have always needed, it is just that some of the pressure is off for a while. But after bust comes boom again. With half of the developing world’s currencies biting the dust, has anyone noticed the gold price edging towards $1000 an ounce? And where will the skills come from then, when all of the gold mines are expanding? AngloGold and Harmony’s market capitalisation is now at an all-time high in Rand terms as at end January 2009. BHP Billiton’s coal division’s export earnings rose 135% during the last half of 2008.

Not to mention that 2010 is around the corner, nothing can stop the new power stations (even if some are deferred), Gautrain’s burrowing ahead and even if some construction projects have been postponed, they will all be implemented in the end.

And that leaves us …

So, training then needs to take place somewhere between the end of a bust and the start of a boom, but where? There will probably never be a better time than right now.

Just as the best time to start investing in the ‘Next Best New Thing’ is before everyone else gets in on the act, it is also the best time to implement a properly structured training programme. That is because training, properly considered, is an investment. However, that is only true if it is properly thought through, analysed for the greatest areas of impact, and the effects measured – just as if a new control project was being implemented (which it is).

So why train?

Look at it this way: in most plants, fault-finding is a fairly hit-and-miss affair. From the time a fault gets reported, there is usually either an experiential approach (which is a fancy way of saying “… last time it was xyz, so let us try that first”) or it ends up being trial-and-error (“… let us try abc and if that does not work, we will try def and see what happens”). In the first instance, the fault-finder may luck out and get the fault fixed at attempt number one. If that happens, it is probably a recurring problem whose root cause should be discovered and eliminated.

In the second, not only is an awful lot of time wasted, but there is a reasonable chance that no-one is absolutely certain what the problem actually was, or what caused it in the first place.

This is obviously not the situation in all plants, but it does happen far more often than it should.

If the biggest cost to a production facility is downtime, it makes sense to keep this to a minimum. There are other issues though, such as off-spec product being produced because of poor loop tuning or even more likely, because the wrong control strategy was selected because of limited understanding of process control generally, or of the dependencies in the specific process involved.

The solution

Provided that the appropriate raw materials (people) were selected in the first place, all of these things can be taught. Areas that need to be understood by the person responsible for fixing problems (whether at artisan, technician or engineer level) for effective, maintenance-minimum measurement and control to take place include:

* The process.

* Control system structure.

* Control system internals, including the program.

* Loop control.

* Field instrumentation.

* Final control elements.

* Plant data communications.

* P&I diagrams, as well as the loop drawings.

* Physical location of the equipment.

Based on the evidence of talking to plant ‘fix-it’ people, over years of training instrumentation staff, it appears that very little of this understanding is in place at most plants.

All of these key requirements, except perhaps the first and the last (and the details of the control system structure), can be taught by a competent trainer. (Actually, these can also be taught, given enough time and determination.)

This competence can be embedded in the technician/artisan/engineer, provided that there is purpose to the training and a clear understanding of the outcomes required. Too often, training is carried out to pass an outdated ‘Trade Test’, or to be assessed as competent against a hazy ‘Unit Standard’.

It need not be so, if there is a confirmed agreement between the employer and the trainer, a training programme can be planned and implemented which results in understanding of the equipment and control system being transferred to the employee.

When this happens, problems disappear quickly.

Is that it, then?

Yes and no. In many cases, training is carried out haphazardly, with little thought given to achieving a quantifiable, measurable result. To get to this, we need a clear picture of the difference between where the organisation is now, and where we would like it to be.

For instance, is the requirement that the person responsible for getting the plant operational goes quickly to the point of breakdown, pinpoints the problem, fixes it, and the plant is up-and-running within minutes? As follow-up, should the root cause of the problem be identified, and steps taken to ensure that this particular problem does not happen again?

If this is the requirement, then how far are we away from apparent Utopia? It is important that the question is realistically faced, because it determines the training approach that should be utilised, versus the traditional way which is patently not working en masse. It must be said that there are, clearly, people who punch way above their weight and these are usually working way below their ability (and should be cherished, rewarded, educated and utilised to the highest level of which they are capable. Do not forget ‘rewarded’). Joe Average does not usually crack it – and this is usually more a reflection on what Joe has been taught and the way in which it was taught, rather than on Joe himself.

What is usually missing is:

* Any degree of interest imparted during the education/training period.

* Relevance of the training material.

* Mastery on the part of the educator.

* An holistic approach to the subject of process automation.

* A clear picture of how these parts interact.

* An understanding of how well it is possible for an effective plant to run.

If these gaps can be plugged (as they can), we have the ingredients for world-class capability.

For this to happen, though, a few things need to change, including:

* The need to see training as an investment rather than as a cost.

* The realisation that, just as any investment is carefully chosen for its risk vs return, the investment in training must be equally scrutinised.

* The understanding that this investment requires a partnership between the investors and the implementers. (You cannot just throw money at the problem.)

* Timely monitoring and reporting with corrections made as required.

* The willingness to see this as a work in progress – that there can never be too much ability – and that, once effective, it will seem cheap at the price especially if records are kept concerning mean time to repair, alarm incidences, replacement spending and downtime, or the duration of loops spent in manual.

Measuring the return

It is important that records of the points made in the previous paragraph are accurately kept – they will show justification. Too often a certain level of competence is taken for granted; this applies to both good and bad.

If a certain (high) level of competence is taken for granted, it is very easy for ongoing training to be reduced at budget time. Cause and effect are not clearly related because of the time difference between investment and return – which will be recognised by control practitioners as a process dominated by dead time.

Benchmarking through regular discussions with similar organisations helps keep a handle on where the organisation is placed in overall competence.

The point is that training must be seen as an investment; that having just come out of a boom, there should be retained earnings to easily finance this investment; that with the slow-down there is the time available to make this investment in our people; and that if this investment return is properly monitored, the returns will far exceed expectations.

There has never been a better time to make the training investment.

Eric Carter
Eric Carter

About the author

Eric Carter has a long history of involvement in the control arena. He also has at least 10 years of involvement in training, and founded turboTRAIN in 2005. He is an active member of the SAIMC, and is on the committee of the Johannesburg branch for the coming year.

For more information contact Eric Carter, turboTRAIN, +27 (0)11 886 4902,,

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