An industrial power plant at sunset

Knowledge Transfer is Critical in Power Plant Training

An industry proverb tells the story of retired mechanic who once maintained a specialized machine. When the machine wouldn’t start, no one knew how to fix it, so the mechanic was contracted to come in and have a look. After a few minutes of inspection, the mechanic lightly taps the machine with a hammer and it fires up! The mechanic hands the owner an invoice for $10,000. When the angry owner asked him for a detailed breakdown of his fees, the reply came: “Hitting with hammer: $1. Knowing where to hit: $9,999.” Back when that old mechanic retired, $9,999 in knowledge and experience left with them.

As the average age of existing skilled workers is now 55 years old, the industry is seeing its experience and knowledge retiring. Without some method to capture those skills and experience, facilities will find themselves in situations without a Subject Matter Expert (SME). Exacerbating the problem, new skilled labor is not readily available for hire. John Ratzenberger, a Senior Fellow with the Center for America cited a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics report, which announced a shortfall of 3 million skilled workers in 2012. Furthermore, during the height of the recent recession, 32 percent of manufacturers had unfilled positions because new hires with relevant experience were not readily available.

According to a news release from CISION newswire, this lack of skilled workers drove a Nielsen Company survey of U.S. manufacturing firms who were forced to hire unskilled workers. The survey respondents revealed an average five-year cost of $63 million to recruit and train new hires, taking into account the cost of their “rookie mistakes.” One company placed their cost at over $100 million. If companies are forced to hire unskilled workers, the fundamental way to reduce the cost of training them is to train relevant skills, captured from the existing SMEs. In fact, over two-thirds of the survey’s respondents agreed that a robust training program is key to their future. Therefore, capturing knowledge before it retires is an important part of the training program’s foundation.

The first step in ensuring knowledge and experience is to identify what knowledge and skills are at risk of being lost. Next, SME interviews are conducted to capture their knowledge and skills with a high level of detail. During the interview, their skills are codified, validated and standardized. When complete, their experience can be rolled into procedures, qualifications and if comprehensive enough, may become the foundation of an entire training program. Focused SME interviews can also help develop detailed job descriptions, enabling HR personnel to focus their hiring efforts on relevant skills. In short, the desired result is knowledge transfer from the outgoing employee to paper. Once collected, it becomes a tool for the new hire, support personnel and training staff alike.

Regarding the $10,000 mechanic, wouldn’t it have been nice if before they left, they wrote down how they knew where to hammer in an easy-to-follow procedure? Then, the next time that problem occurs, the on-shift mechanic could do it for free. That’s what knowledge transfer does: it takes those years of experience and puts them on paper. Once complete, there is no need to call in the contractor or wait until so-and-so is on-shift to fix it – the knowledge was captured and the procedure was trained to every new and incumbent employee, increasing their value to the company and their personal worth.