District energy, process or power plants must operate at the lowest practicable cost to maintain the broadest profit margin. Somewhat contrary to this mandate, when the plant is operating smoothly, average operators do little to improve the operation of the plant beyond keeping it running. Perhaps the average operator does not understand the ultimate ramifications of operating conditions such as too much or too little boiler excess air; further, they likely do not consider how these conditions translate directly to dollars. As long as the plant is running, the average untrained operator is satisfied.
Power plant training has numerous benefits to the plant, but training for the sake of training can be a waste of resources. Appropriate training teaches the value of operating efficiently by ensuring the plant is understood, instead of simply “operating to survive”; that is, the training should translate operator action and inaction to bottom line dollars.
Proper training makes an average-performing plant better and a well-performing plant excellent. While untrained operators watch panels and try to make it through their shift, trained operators are confident and proactive: they seek out issues and look for the opportunity to improve safety and efficiency.
Improved efficiency and safe operations translate directly to the bottom line on Day One. The result is a culture of improvement rather than stagnation at the status quo. Consider the cost of training versus the value of the capital assets the operator is responsible for and the value of training is clear.
At underperforming and average facilities, training is reactionary rather than proactive; that is, power plant training happens as a result of a near miss or incident rather than seeking to create a culture of excellence. While the cost of given incidents is difficult to estimate in advance, in retrospect, cost is invariably higher than the proactive cost of training to avoid it. Any operator would rather train on the causes and immediate actions of low drum level than experience the product and aftermath of a boiler explosion; the same may be said for the price of power plant training versus the price of replacing a boiler or loss of life. Considering these factors, as today’s profit margins decrease, the need to invest in workforce training and education increases.
Other, less apparent factors also drive the need to train. With plants facing the specter of significant attrition due to retirements, management must consider establishing a training program for both new and incumbent operators. Codifying retirees’ knowledge and experience must become part of the training program lest the lessons of the past be repeated by future employees.
Power plant training provides tangible evidence that both the company and facility are serious about demanding improvement. Investing in training demonstrates that operators have value to the company and increases their self-worth and motivation while on shift. Valued employees are retained and become more experienced and efficient, resulting in lower attrition. Low attrition directly saves money as the average cost of replacing an employee is 100-125% of the employee’s annual salary (Green & Brainard, 2005).
With impending retirements, an untrained and inexperienced workforce will attempt to take over for decades of retiring experience. The knowledge that is both available today and that from retiring personnel must be captured, validated and documented in tangible training material where it can become the foundation of a world-class facility’s training program.