The chemical industry faces a major challenge in retaining crucial know-how, as our cover story points out. Sure, economic conditions are tough — but now's not the time to skimp on efforts to preserve within the plant gates the expertise of veteran staff who are leaving. Effectively capturing this knowledge always has been an issue but is becoming even more important.
We surveyed visitors to ChemicalProcessing.com in May about the number of continuing education or professional development courses they had taken over the past two years and, at press time, so far almost half of respondents said they hadn't taken any. (Final results will appear in the July issue's InProcess section.)
That's sobering but not surprising. It doesn't mean that people aren't bothered about keeping up. Sure, some likely don't feel the need, figuring they're far enough along in their careers that courses really don't offer any major benefits. I'd reckon, though, that most would welcome the chance to enhance their skills. However, fewer and fewer companies seem to support such efforts (falling for another false economy) — a trend that has been developing well before the most recent economic troubles. Too many firms talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Funding has become hard to get or nonexistent. Even where money is available, workload is so high that finding the time often is a deal-breaker. This afflicts attendance at courses as well as at technical meetings and trade shows. (On-site "lunch and learn" presentations by vendors may provide a viable alternative for some topics — one of our recent online surveys found that more than 90% of respondents are interested in such sessions.)
Welcome to the real world, you might say. True enough but two factors make addressing the situation all the more critical, despite today's economic woes.
First is aging of the baby boomer generation. Industry faces an unprecedented — but hardly unanticipated — loss of staff as baby boomers start to retire in droves. The scale of this exodus ratchets up the severity of the problem. However, it's more just a question of numbers.
Chemical engineers of that generation were the last to get an education that focused to any substantive extent on the practical aspects of unit operations and other processing technology. The continuing push in academia over the last couple of decades to concentrate on fundamentals has led to graduates who boast excellent understanding of underlying theory but who, all too often, require lots of time and training in the workplace before they truly can function effectively. (It also has led to engineering school faculties that largely consist of professors who lack actual industrial experience and thus can’t provide a real-world perspective for students. A few adjunct professors teaching design classes, their best intentions and efforts notwithstanding, don’t suffice to provide that perspective. But that’s the topic of another column, “Curriculum Change Isn’t Enough.”) This makes it even harder for newer engineers to fully appreciate and assimilate knowledge from soon-to-be-retiring colleagues.
With veteran operators the question now is how much real expertise do they still have to relay to others? Too many plants have allowed operators' know-how to diminish or at least grow stale. The prevalence of automated control systems has deprived operators of deep knowledge of the units they control and some of the hands-on experience that builds expertise. The lengthening of the time between turnarounds means that staff must contend with shutdown and startup issues very infrequently, often only once every several years. It's hard to retain knowledge in such situations, let alone pass it on. Sure, simulators and other training can help, if done right — but just throwing scenarios and lots of information at operators isn't necessarily effective. Fortunately, some companies are banding together to address this situation through groups such the Center for Operator Performance (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/213.html, www.operatorperformance.org) and the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium (www.asmconsortium.com).
Plus, skilled operators don't all respond to process issues the same way. That's why performance often varies shift-to-shift — and why pinning down "best practices" can be a challenge in its own right.
Nevertheless, as staffs get leaner, it's even more important to lean on veterans — to capture their expertise. If industry doesn't, lean will lead to a fall.
Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at email@example.com