The need for efficient and effective workforce training is acute. The oil and gas industry, upstream through downstream, faces a critical shortage of competent workers as baby boomers retire and fewer new, competent workers replace them.
Recent research shows just how critical training is. Los Angeles Research Group and IBISWorld estimated oil and gas pipeline construction employment at about 1.2 million in 2011 and 152,000 in 2012, a drop of more than 1 million employees. At the same time, pipeline construction spending is expected to increase by 12 percent over the next five years compared to the last five, according to Douglas-Westwood, a UK-based market research and consulting firm for the energy industry.
“Despite a trickle of young employees entering the field, there is simply not enough talent in the current pipeline to replace the leadership positions that will open up as older employees retire,” adds Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith at DownstreamToday.com, an online news website covering the downstream oil and gas sector. “Further, with U.S. universities producing only 20 percent of the engineering graduates they did 20 years ago, there are not enough qualified candidates to fill these positions vacated by retiring baby boomers.”
In addition to retraining older workers, it is imperative to train new hires quickly and effectively to prepare them to step quickly into highly responsible roles with little or no drop-off in workforce capabilities.
Simulation-based training, particularly computer-based training prefaced by appropriate classroom training, is the fastest, most efficient and most effective way to prepare field operators, operations technicians and maintenance personnel for work on the line. Workers who have been trained via simulation may make fewer mistakes, recognize potential problems earlier, and have the skills and experience to best respond to a given situation, thus reducing the likelihood of accidents.
Visiongain, a London-based business information provider, calculated the global oil and gas simulation and virtual reality market to be worth $2.243 billion in 2011. All accounts project the market to grow steadily during the next decade. North America is the leading geographic market for oil and gas virtual reality training and simulation.
The “International Energy Outlook 2011,” produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), predicts global consumption of oil and other liquid fuels will rise to 112.2 million barrels per day in 2035, from 85.7 million barrels per day in 2008, an increase of 30.9 percent. “Estimates are that the U.S. and Canada will need roughly 30,000 to 60,000 additional miles of natural gas pipeline though 2030,” as reported in the North American Oil & Gas Pipelines February 2013 cover story, “The Natural Gas Revolution.”
How We Learn
People learn in many different ways. Many are visual learners, some are auditory learners, while others are sensory or kinesthetic learners.
A body of research shows that for higher-order skills, multiple modes of learning are more effective than traditional learning. More importantly, interactive multimodal learning — including simulations, modeling and “real-world experiences” — is more effective than non-interactive multimodal learning, such as text with graphics, animation, etc. Specifically, multiple studies showed that for higher-order skills, interactive multimodal learning resulted in a 12 percentile increase in effectiveness compared to non-interactive multimodal learning. Interactive, multimodal and experiential, simulator-based training is grouped among the most effective learning methods.
Jessica Trybus, game-based learning expert at the New Media Institute, says students “need effective, interactive experiences that motivate and actively engage (them) in the learning process.
“Well-designed game-based learning has several advantages over traditional experiential learning methods. It is cost-effective and low-risk, unlike, for example, safety training using live machinery.
“There are significant learning advantages,” Trybus adds. “Learners can reenact a precise set of circumstances multiple times, exploring the consequences of different actions. In addition, well-designed games permit learning experiences that aren’t possible in real life — for example, causing the biggest possible virtual explosion to understand why gas line disasters happen.”
Effective Training and the Blended Approach
While full-scope simulator training plays a key role in training on advanced concepts and in enabling virtual practice, there are many advantages to a learning strategy that blends simulations with e-learning computer-based training (CBT) modules. Such an approach enables pipeline construction companies to reduce costs over the training lifecycle by empowering them to:
• Measure and identify gaps in competence;
• Provide targeted training;
• Ensure relevant and consistent content;
• Improve competence; and
• Reduce learning times.
These reduce the instructor’s time commitment, as most of the basic operational knowledge is explained in the self-paced tutorials. The programs run on standard PCs and are ideal for groups and classrooms where trainees can work independently using their own CBT modules and simulations.
CBT tutorials and universal simulations can be made available on demand so that students can revisit specific topics on their own and engage the instructor when necessary. This shortens the learning process and reduces costs by not requiring an instructor to reteach the fundamentals.
Simulation-based training, when combined with today’s 3-D technology, can deliver performance and economic benefits to pipeline construction in the same way that it has been used in other maintenance and task-based industrial operations. Interactive visualization tools can help pipeline equipment operators improve their techniques for pipe stringing, welding, trenching and other pipeline construction operations that will help them reduce construction downtime, bring new pipelines onstream faster and reduce the risk of equipment damage.
Simulation-based training also helps increase employee confidence because they can practice tasks or procedures until they master them. They provide students a means to practice, make mistakes and learn in a safe environment. Trainees also become more aware of safety procedures because they apply them these in the simulations. Sometimes this even helps trainees unlearn improper techniques they may have picked up prior to simulation-based training.
Efficient training: In pipeline construction, as in any business, time is money. Making a new employee “profitable” in the oil and gas industry can take up to 18 months using traditional methods. Simulation can reduce time to competency so new hires are profitable quicker. Using the blended approach of CBT followed by simulation, a company can reduce the on-the-job training period significantly, from years to perhaps a few months, converting potentially thousands of dollars per employee in training costs to profit-making activity.
Trainees can each work on their own simulators or computers, allowing them to learn at their own pace. Assigning trainees to their own simulators also enables companies to train their people simultaneously, which is schedule-friendly, efficient and cost-effective. Universal simulations and CBT modules for teaching fundamentals deliver 80 percent of the learning at 20 percent of the cost. Using these tools will speed up training and reduce overall training costs while delivering a workforce that is fully competent.
Reduced instruction cost: Simulation-based training reduces instructors’ time commitment and maximizes the company’s training budget, as most of the pipeline operations knowledge is explained in the self-paced tutorial that precedes work on the simulators. Instructors can spend more quality time with trainees. As a result, more trainees can be trained with existing resources, reducing per-employee training costs and minimizing costs of outside consultants and training courses.
Reduced safety risks: Simulation-based training provides a better understanding of the procedure being studied, which can reduce or prevent potential construction incidents.
Increased unit uptime: A primary economic benefit of simulation-based training is maximizing onstream time due to increased operator skills. The costs of lost production can be enormous and also can affect pipeline maintenance operations.
Improved unit reliability: Simulation-based training is ideal for teaching troubleshooting logic, such as proper ways to isolate and identify a problem. Pipeline contractors and operators can learn to identify problems and take corrective action in situations for which no procedure has been specifically established. By improving operators’ ability to troubleshoot, oil and gas companies reduce costs through early diagnosis and quick corrective action.
The Case is Clear
By using the blended learning approach that combines full-scope simulation training with e-learning/CBT, universal simulations, traditional classroom instruction and even one-on-one mentoring, companies can design effective training regimens that reach each student regardless of his or her preferred learning style. This approach fully embraces the three key learning modalities — visual, auditory and kinesthetic — which, when used in combination, provide trainees with powerful and realistic learning experiences.
As a direct result of simulation and computer-based training, many upstream and downstream companies save 0.5 percent to 1 percent of fuel and power costs. And a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) indicated that power generation companies would see an average yearly savings of about $4,500 per megawatt of generating capacity from simulation. They attributed the saving to reduced training costs, improved plant availability, fewer environmental excursions and reduced damage to equipment. The net result is an ROI in three months. With pipeline costs in the United States averaging $3.1 million per mile and project costs in the billions of dollars, there is little question that pipeline companies can derive similar results.
Gill Grady is senior vice president of sales and marketing for GSE Systems, a next-generation simulation, training and engineering services provider based in Sykesville, Md., with offices around the world.