Boosting Skills: New NiSource Facilities Revolutionize Industry Training Practices

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Excavator-SimulatorA shortage is coming. Throughout the oil and gas pipeline industry, companies are facing the prospect of older employees nearing retirement without a safety net of new workers to fill the void. One company is setting an example on how to reverse that trend while improving employee knowledge through a total overhaul of its training practices.

Merrillville, Indiana-based NiSource Inc. is one of the largest fully-regulated utility companies in the United States, with operations in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The company is building four state-of-the-art training centers throughout its footprint to boost the skills of new hires and current employees, better develop trainers and revamp its overall training curriculum. The facilities will provide hands-on learning in a safe, controlled environment.

The first training center opened in July and is run by Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania in Monaca, Pennsylvania. The others will be in Ohio, Virginia and Massachusetts. The new training centers will be a valuable asset in ensuring the company’s more than 7,500 employees have the knowledge they need to perform their job and meet the standards of the industry.

These modern, centralized training centers represent a step-change in how to recruit and develop new employees for the natural gas industry.

On a recent visit to the Monaca Training Center, technical training leader Linda Crowley showed me around the $10 million, 22,000-sq-ft facility and all its bells and whistles.

The main attraction is the outdoor Emergency Response Safety Town, a mock neighborhood with mini-homes and businesses complete with underground utilities and meters. Instructors can create and control various emergency training scenarios to teach other critical skills like line locating and marking, leak detection, corrosion monitoring and re-establishing gas service.

Adjacent to the model town are a series of demonstration areas. There are pads for practicing with digging equipment, a cross-bore training area and fields for installing pipe.

Also outside is the Fire Safety Training Area, where trainers are able to start and stop fires with special valves while students learn how to extinguish the fire. NiSource also plans to work closely with first responders to coordinate training and planning for real-life scenarios. The week after my visit, a local fire department visited the center for such a training event.

Back inside, the new center is full of simulator areas, hands-on labs, demonstration areas and traditional classrooms. Some rooms feature U-shaped desks to foster better engagement between instructor and students.
Training simulators provide a way for employees to experience various work activities in a controlled and safe environment, including a slip, trip and fall area to help prevent injuries on the job. The hands-on labs are designed to address a number of scenarios employees may encounter on the job, relighting equipment, laying new distribution pipelines, maintaining meters, operating valves and responding to emergency situations.

In the demonstration areas, trainers can gather equipment and material from across the company in teaching. There’s a whole room stocked with a range of newer and older equipment so that employees can experience working with modern and vintage water heaters, furnaces and stoves.

“You never know what you’re going to find out on a service call,” says Crowley, who heads the Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania Monaca Training Center. “Some of the younger employees may never have seen some of these older units. I know there were some I hadn’t seen before.”

The Monaca Training Center also features an Excavator School. In addition to the indoor simulator, which resembles a modern arcade video game, there is a designated outdoor space where excavator operators can practice maneuvering the heavy equipment.

NiSource consulted with a variety of sources to find the best design for its new training centers, Crowley says. The company took inspiration from other utilities, other industries, trade schools, labor unions, military and law enforcement.

NiSource consulted with a variety of sources to find the best design for its new training centers, Crowley says. The company took inspiration from other utilities, other industries, trade schools, labor unions, military and law enforcement.

In addition to the center itself, NiSource has also revamped its training curriculum, she adds. In the old days, a new hire would apprentice with a veteran employee, which was a long, slow process. Now, the company’s on-the-job trainers — or OJTs, as Crowley calls them — work with new hires in the field after they’ve completed a rigorous training program through the center.

The company has also developed a Performance Support Tool, a device agnostic online portal for employees to track their training and access important training materials, company guidelines or industry standards in the field, using a tablet or smartphone. The tool is through Comply 365, a mobile enterprise software system designed for regulated businesses like the oil and gas industry.

“This is something airlines use,” Crowley says. “The information is secure. We plan to have videos available through the system eventually, so our employees have useful tools they may need to access right in their hands.”
The Performance Support Tool is another way the company provides post-training support to its employees, says Mark Chepke, NiSource vice president of training.

“We were looking at the way people are learning today, and technology is a big part of that,” he says. “The whole way people are retrieving knowledge is different. Future generations are increasingly going to want information at their fingertips and want
it instantly.”

ClassroomA Company Standard

To rebuild its training process and curriculum, NiSource has been working with the Mosaic Co., a training and workforce consulting firm based in Renton, Washington, which specializes in utilities and oil and gas companies.

Optimal training is critical today, says Mosaic senior consultant Amy Borgmeyer, focus area lead for field operations training. She cites three major changes occurring simultaneously in the oil and gas pipeline industry that have made existing training programs obsolete.

From increasing regulatory scrutiny, changing technology and infrastructure and new generations of employees replacing an aging workforce, Borgmeyer says these changes have created misalignment between the workforce and the goals of the organization.

“Each of these industry dynamics requires dramatic changes in how employees are trained,” she says. “Optimizing training, and all of the structures that support competent and high-performing employees, is an efficient and effective way to improve the performance of new and existing employees.”

The new training strategy has enabled NiSource to standardize its processes, which Chepke says is important with the company’s operations being spread across seven states.

“That way, no matter where you go in the company, the training is consistent and effective across the board,” he says. “Our instructors can move state to state and more efficiently set up training.”

Prior to building training centers, NiSource’s trainers were dispersed across its footprint. They didn’t have a dedicated location to conduct classes.

“They had to beg, borrow and steal equipment for a class,” Chepke says. “Oftentimes their classroom space was a garage floor or an unused conference room with all sorts
of distractions.”

The combination of hands-on interaction, simulation areas and the U-shaped tables at the Monaca Training Center make for a much more conducive learning environment. It’s not just an instructor standing at the front of a room, lecturing.

“That’s only effective up to a point,” Chepke says.

“The more I can get students engaging with each other and talking back the material they’re learning, the better the knowledge transfer.”

Grand-Opening-2-Grand-Opening-2-0053Closing the Gaps

Through the new training centers, its new curriculum and enhanced teaching tools, NiSource is looking to close the knowledge gap among new hires and ensure the company is meeting operator qualification (OQ) standards. The streamlined training process also helps NiSource close the age gap in the industry.

“The labor landscape four or five years ago started to change in the industry, for a couple reasons,” Chepke says. “It was the start of what will be a lot of turnover in industry. The older workforce was transitioning to retire. But the other driver was the rapid replace-and-expansion programs companies started to embark on over last few years. There has been a dramatic ramp-up in the number of people contractors and utilities need to fill positions.”

Building the training centers provides NiSource the opportunity to bring in groups to tour the facility,
Chepke says. Whether it’s a technical trade school, high schoolers or another technical trade organization, NiSource can show them what the industry is all about and the opportunities available.

“It gives us the opportunity to set up demonstrations and displays in a safe environment to show them what the industry really is and let them know that this a good career path, as opposed to going college or following some other path,” he says. “Many people don’t have an appreciation for the diversity of opportunities in the gas industry. The training centers allow us to highlight that aspect for the community at large.”

With the focus on simulators, lab space and demonstration areas, Chepke says the company is moving away from classroom training to more hands-on experiences.

“Adults learn better that way,” he says. “There’s more knowledge transfer when we combine classroom and simulated training, and then we provide them support after they enter the field.”

OJT coaches come in during the classroom training, and they start to build that mentoring relationship with the new hires from the beginning.

“Once the trainee gets their assignment in the field, the OJT coaches stay in touch by making sure they’re placed on the right jobs, and they see where the struggles and gaps are,” Chepke says. “If needed, the coaches intervene and bring that person back to the training center to develop their skills or it’s done in the field one-on-one with employee.”

Safety-TownIt’s About Safety

A major component of developing the new training centers and curriculum comes down to improving safety.

“One of things about having good, seasoned employees is that they have learned a lot by trial and error,” Chepke says. “The near-misses, field experiences, working with old equipment, they’ve gained a lot of experience over time. It’s hard to replace that as an industry. A lot of the work they do is the same, day in and day out. There’s not a lot of variation. But, on every given day, there’s a chance they could run across something we haven’t seen in 20 years.”

Regardless of how unique or rare the situation, Chepke says NiSource wants its employees to know how to address such emergencies. Working with first responders is another aspect of improving overall safety along NiSource’s operations.

“Building relationships with our first responders is the No. 1 thing we’re trying to do,” Chepke says. “Whether it’s conducting mock drills or just a teaching exercise, we’re building good communication between our people and the first responders, so they know who each other are and know what their roles are. The second thing, from an incident command structure, is understanding how to work within that environment. Every emergency is a little different, and everyone involved really needs to work together.”

NiSource broke ground on is second training center in Gahanna, Ohio, on Aug. 11. All four facilities are expected to be operational by 2018.

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at bkramer@benjaminmedia.com.

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