Efforts Bolster Operator Training

A variety of initiatives aim to improve expertise and effectiveness.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Chemical makers such as Eastman and BASF are continuing to fine-tune their operator training strategies. Meanwhile, research by the Center for Operator Performance (COP) and Honeywell Advanced Solutions is highlighting the importance of how knowledge itself is acquired and used.

Over the last five years, Eastman Chemical has been honing its training strategies to ensure new operations staff is up-and-running as quickly and efficiently as possible.

For example, at Kingsport, Tenn., its largest site and global headquarters, the company manages apprentice programs for chemical operator positions in conjunction with Northeast State Community College, Blountville, Tenn. These programs last 3–4 years.

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“Operators are also required to complete health, safety, environment and security training, along with area-specific post-apprenticeship training and soft skills training,” notes training associate Laurey Conway.

Eastman uses proctored online tests and on-the-job certifications and re-certifications following apprentice program completion. In addition, the company monitors chemical operator job performance, particularly with regard to safety, environmental performance and quality.

“Engineering co-ops/interns and newly-hired engineers have also been participating in labs at the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) in Kingsport. RCAM gives them hands-on instruction on process equipment. This will help them as they work to troubleshoot and improve existing processes and develop new processes. Examples of the types of labs available include control valves, centrifugal pumps and precision measuring,” adds Conway.

RCAM is an offsite teaching facility for Northeast State Community College. It provides training in process operations to personnel from industry, together with courses in these areas for the school’s own students. As part of its training portfolio RCAM recently has developed an “introduction to chemical manufacturing” course to help individuals become more familiar with chemical operations and process control.

“This course will be used for new and incumbent chemical operators, engineers and maintenance employees to gain a better understanding of chemical processing with a strong emphasis on troubleshooting,” explains Jeff Frazier, principal RCAM coordinator at Eastman.

As a part of the onboarding process for chemical operators at the company, new employees take a course called “industrial skills for new hires.” This provides them with many of the fundamentals of working in an industrial environment and seeks to close the gap between what they do know and what they need to know.

In another new initiative, this time to advance workforce skills in the realm of advanced films, Eastman is partnering with Patrick Henry Community College, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., and the New College Institute, all based in Martinsville, Va., in the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing (CAFM), also located there. This program covers industrial principles and advanced film manufacturing skills, and includes both hands-on manufacturing skills and classroom learning.

Launched in September 2015, the CAFM graduated its first class in May 2016. “Seven of those graduates were hired as Eastman team members at the company’s Fieldale and Patriot Centre sites,” notes Charles Fraley, human resources manager.

Three-Pronged Program

The learning and development approach adopted by BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, covers the entire work life of employees. It combines three aspects of learning — from experience, from others, and through seminars and media — in a roughly 70%/20%/10% proportion. Annual expenditure on this hovers at around €100 million ($107 million).

The company encourages all employees to take ownership of their own development and relies on twice yearly meetings with supervisors to hone individual goals and professional development. Measures typically decided upon here include job rotations, project assignments and attendance at seminars or training courses.

“It is important to us that employee development is not limited to hierarchical promotion, but includes many different aspects to foster the professional and personal competencies of our employees and to prepare them for upcoming challenges. Also we systematically monitor which new learning methods are available and reflect current trends such as digitalization in our learning concepts,” says René Stautmeister, team leader personnel development for production, engineering and laboratory at BASF.

One of the main challenges the company’s operating divisions at Ludwigshafen face relates to demographics — up to 70% of the operational managers there are due to retire over the next few years.

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