Plants Grapple with Graying Staff

Retaining expertise and know-how remains a crucial issue.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Many chemical makers must defuse a demographic time bomb as veteran engineers and operators approach retirement. Companies are pursuing a variety of strategies to bring replacements up to speed and ensure that a vast wealth of knowledge and experience isn’t lost.

For example, for over five years now, Air Products, Allentown, Pa., has been developing procedures for knowledge retention and transfer. So much so that today most of the activity at its corporate university centers on this challenge; the company has developed a range of informal learning techniques such as communities of practice, side-by-side working, after-action reviews and story-telling.

At Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, the focus is very much on creating and sustaining communities of practice in its wider business activities. Mentoring and coaching of new staff by experienced employees also is important. Another strategy the company finds very useful is to let new employees work on case studies of actual process or production challenges. This not only gives less experienced workers the opportunity to develop their own strategies for different scenarios but also allows them to see how their actions compare with the real responses of experienced workers faced with the same situations.

Critical Challenge

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, faces daunting demographics. In five years, half of the 30,000 staff at the site will be over 50. To prepare for this, for nearly ten years now the company has put demographic management at the heart of its personnel activities.

One example of the actions the company is taking is the use of so-called knowledge relays to retain the experience and insights of operators who are approaching retirement age. Such relays involve bringing an upcoming retiree and that person’s successor together in the presence of an external trainer with the aim of capturing and transferring as much experience as possible— an action that BASF says cuts down on the need for formal training and speeds the integration of the new employee into the post.

“Knowledge relays preserve know-how during job changes. There are often a lot of unspoken expectations towards a new job owner. Moreover, much information is not documented properly. A knowledge relay provides a process engineer with access to this informal knowledge when taking over a new job,” notes BASF spokeswoman Sabrina van der Puetten.

The involved parties first familiarize themselves with the knowledge relay process itself, in particular making sure they have the same expectations about the information to be transferred. The actual “knowledge transfer talk” relies upon what BASF calls a knowledge map that matches the successor’s questions to the experienced engineer’s responses. For a process engineer, such a knowledge map not only covers “who,” “what” and “how to do” questions but also other insights gathered over time by the experienced engineer, such as “years ago at a foreign site when all of a sudden the regulations changed, we quickly had to...”.

“This approach shortens the training time for a new job and helps the new job owner to adapt to his role more quickly. It is a very individual approach which is carried out in a confidential setting. We constantly measure how predecessor and successor judge the benefit of this approach. Nearly all participants report increased effectiveness and confirm that it is well worth it,” says van der Puetten.

BASF also has established a learning center at Ludwigshafen. Here, young process engineers work with experienced supervisors to create individual learning packages that are fine-tuned annually. Learning consultation meetings between the process engineer and supervisor are used to discuss the employee’s learning style, check learning and education objectives, and define learning strategies. This then enables the young process engineer to focus on how best to match the training needed with the person’s current job. BASF has a variety of communities where process engineers can discuss technical challenges and problems that they face with experienced engineers from the company’s operations worldwide.

At a broader level, since 2009 the company has been running an initiative called “Optimizing Production in Antwerp and Ludwigshafen into the 21st Century” (Opal 21). The project aims to achieve operational excellence at all production facilities in these two, large, integrated sites. Central to this is the need to improve knowledge management and transfer.

Part of Opal 21 involves installing plant trainers at each facility on the site. Their job is to create on a continuing basis learning projects that ensure capture and transfer of important knowledge within each facility and the wider complex (Figure 1). “The plant trainers are working successfully in many plants now and we also offer training and guidelines for process managers so that best practices can be exchanged via role-specific communities,” comments van der Puetten.

The skills and knowledge gleaned at the existing Opal 21 sites now are being leveraged to support and monitor the introduction of production systems used in Antwerp and Ludwigshafen at other BASF sites around the world.

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