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Knowledge Capture: New Hires Get Up to Speed

Dec. 7, 2016
Companies ramp up efforts to enhance skills of recently graduated engineers.

Transferring expertise and knowledge of experienced staff to engineers beginning their careers is hardly a new issue for chemicals makers. However, the ongoing wave of retiring baby boomers (see: “Retirement Casts a Long Shadow”) is prompting companies such as DuPont, Air Products and Dow to hone their training resources. Academia is facing a similar challenge — and responding both in terms of what and how schools teach students.

DuPont, Wilmington, Del., long has focused on the demographic situation; the company believes the bulk of the exodus of experienced staff now has occurred. One of the key tools it has used to retain know-how is its field engineering program. This provides an early-career opportunity to experience the diversity of the company by rotating through a series of developmental assignments.

“What the program does is act as a feeder pool for engineering by ensuring that the next generation gets the coaching and support needed. It also allows us to innovate as situations change,” notes field engineering program manager Miray S. Pereira.

Mentoring Engineers

Figure 1. One-on-one coaching can play a key role in career development efforts. Source: Air Products.

The program focuses on finding talented self-starters who are willing to move around and who can handle real jobs rather than just training tasks.

New engineers typically have 2–5 rotations in different business functions such as corporate science and innovation, manufacturing or engineering. Each stint lasts 2–3 years and can include assignments such as manufacturing technology, maintenance and reliability, and capital project leadership.

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“The rotations vary based on business needs and the engineer’s interest. Each field engineer reports to a section supervisor — many of whom have come through the program and understand the unique needs of the role — who helps connect field engineers working in similar businesses, gives them coaching and matches them to the rotations. They visit sites to understand the business needs, serve as a trusted advisor to the engineers and manage performance,” explains Pereira, who in turn manages the section supervisors to ensure alignment with both DuPont’s engineering organization and the company as a whole.

Each field engineer also has a local site supervisor who acts as guide and mentor on day-to-day work. “They work alongside experienced engineers and do real work which, in our view, is one of the most exciting and effective development opportunities available,” she adds.

Hand-in-hand with this help are other training efforts such as the annual field development program where experts — usually including the company’s chief science and technology officer — are brought in to give guidance.

“Because of the flexibility allowed by the program, young engineers get an opportunity to explore their interests and not get constrained in any particular work area,” says Pereira.

Over time, the program has evolved and today focuses both on matching skill sets to jobs, and encouraging self-discovery, career anchors, working to strengths and appreciating diversity of thought. Tech-savvy new engineers are strongly encouraged to use their skills wherever possible.

This approach continues as engineers become more experienced, too, with some field engineers developing a passion for a particular area and becoming an expert in it. For example, James Tilton, has written a chapter on fluid and particle dynamics for “Perry’s Chemical Engineer’ Handbook,” while Jim Collins, now executive vice president and chief operating officer of the agricultural business, discovered his passion for the market while in the field engineering program.

“The field engineering program is an integral part of DuPont engineering, giving integrated end-to-end expertise to keep up with business challenges. It produces great problem-solvers,” stresses Pereira.

Anticipating Openings

Air Products, Allentown, Pa., uses historical data and forecasted hiring information to evaluate and account for chemical/process engineer positions that may become vacant for a variety of reasons, including internal position changes, career development opportunities, retirement and attrition, notes Brian McCourt, manager, talent acquisition.

“Air Products performs both formal and informal knowledge-transfer practices to prepare employees and workgroups for success after an employee moves on,” he adds.

An important part of this involves the company’s career development program (CDP). “Participants gain broad experience as they rotate through different positions with various business areas. This process enables them to make well-informed decisions about the areas that most interest them and also sets them up for success as they transition into a permanent position within the company,” explains Stacy Halliday, talent acquisition specialist, university relations.

The CDP has a council that provides participants with an avenue for networking and sharing experiences with each other. It also hosts a range of professional development workshops.

The company also offers a variety of internal training courses through Air Products University. Offerings for engineers range from very technical ones that contain highly proprietary information and require special approval to attend to others that help employees clearly understand, for example, engineering standards.

“The most effective means of developing knowledge and skills continues to be on-the-job execution with proper oversight and mentoring (Figure 1). Training courses are also used to supplement this process,” notes Stephanie Powell, human resources, talent management.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) develop, maintain and own course content. “We have a process where each SME identifies a frequency that the course content needs to be reviewed for relevancy. This information is documented in our system, and reports are generated quarterly. Course content reviews are also dictated by state/federal laws and organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Transportation,” she adds.

The company is moving some of its traditional classroom-based lecture materials to other vehicles such as screencasts. “We are also considering the use of smartphones and tablets for engineer training. However, there are information risk-management concerns that must first be addressed,” she cautions. These relate to the security of Air Products’ proprietary material; mobile devices currently don’t offer the level of protection the company requires within its own firewall, although efforts are underway to close this gap.

Building the skill sets of engineering talent will remain an ongoing imperative. “We will continue to train engineers through the Air Products University, knowledge-transfer activities, hands-on experiences in our manufacturing facilities, and mentoring and coaching opportunities. In addition, we partner with colleges and universities on research projects and serve as board members to continually discuss the needs of the industry,” Halliday concludes.


At Dow, Midland, Mich., rotation and development programs also help provide on-the-job training for new graduates. “Regardless of where they start, they are exposed to a variety of areas. We heavily rely on our rotating interns to fill open roles once they have had the appropriate amount of on-the-job training. Also, we engage with local colleges and universities, in terms of establishing curriculum and conducting workshops,” notes Sonya Davis, North America South/Midwest/West human resources director.

Dow has a number of engineers who serve as mentors; in all cases, new graduates work alongside more-experienced employees. All new employees are encouraged to have at least one mentor.

As part of its mentoring program, the company recently initiated an “engagement program” that connects internal mentors with potential hires. This particularly focuses on mentees with a disability or prior military service — two groups with diverse skill sets and perspectives the company says are critical to its future success.

Alongside these mentors — and central to the company’s “learning through doing” philosophy — are integration coaches who serve as the day-to-day advisors for new graduates.

In some locations, a new graduate must successfully complete in-plant training and testing before being allowed to work independently.

The company also is harnessing the abilities of graduates with a new system called Diamond Learning. Launched on October 31, this enables social-, mobile- and micro-learning for more-effective training and development

Micro-learning is a strategy for quickly and efficiently teaching or updating new specific skills or processes using quick and to-the-point techniques such as short (a couple minutes or less) videos or training modules delivered within existing meetings. Social-learning enables the direct teaching and learning of new skills from colleagues and peers, either by direct instruction/observation, or through sharing key skills through internal social media mechanisms.

“The system acknowledges that today’s employees learn differently and our learning system required an upgrade to meet the needs of the modern learner. Having tech-savvy new college graduates is also an advantage for Dow as they bring this knowledge and confidence to our workforce and help us stay ahead of the competition. It also helps these new hires feel more valued as they are serving a purpose right away by sharing their knowledge with older engineers and [being] able to make a positive impact at Dow,” explains Davis.

Diamond Learning has the additional benefit of providing analytics to assess training impact, she notes.

“Our world is moving at a faster rate, things are changing quicker than ever before and we need to develop a workforce that can thrive in this environment. Our new Diamond Learning is designed to do just that,” she emphasizes.

A Challenge For Academia

A different perspective comes from Jarka Glassey, a professor in the school of chemical engineering and advanced materials at Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K. Glassey also is editor-in-chief of Education for Chemical Engineers and chair of the education special interest group (EdSIG) of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

She has a long-standing interest in capturing expert meta-data, working with then major chemical maker ICI in the early 1990s (for details on the rise and fall of ICI, see:”ICI Fades into History”) and more recently with a number of biopharmaceutical companies.

“The demographic time bomb is really important both for the university and the IChemE — as lecturers [assistant/associate professors] and fellow-level chemical engineers approach retirement age. It’s very akin to experts leaving industry and the question is the same: How do we keep their knowledge and experience for the newer population?”

For its part, the IChemE has adopted a digitization agenda which has started with discussions from the grassroots membership right up to the governing council level about how best to tackle the problem.

Meanwhile, EdSIG has run various workshops to pinpoint the challenges involved. “These found that capturing the experience of industrial experts for the benefit of the future generations of chemical engineers can often be difficult and currently relies predominantly on pre-existing contacts that academics have with companies. However, in the case of ‘new-to-teaching’ academics, this may be difficult and thus IChemE committed resources to start constructing a database of experienced industrial members willing to share their expertise in specialist lectures, such as process safety and heat transfer applications,” she explains.

This database will allow universities seeking industrial input on various areas of the curriculum to get in touch with these experts. In addition, it can serve for lining up experts to talk to students about the relevance of academic topics to real-life situations.

“It’s very important for the students to understand both the academic concepts and the practical applications and implications of various areas of their future professional activities. Given the future of chemical engineering is going to be a very different experience for future generations of chemical engineers due to fast advances in our science and engineering knowledge, it is important that graduates are not only exposed to the current practice, but sufficiently open-minded to push the barriers of the profession forward,” she explains.

In addition, tech-savvy undergraduates can provide important insights, Glassey emphasizes. “I always involve students in any change in course methodology. While they might not have the 30+ years overview of some staff, they bring new insights into how to do things — and you need both.”

This strategy already has led to the introduction of new teaching methodologies that involve much more cased-based and enquiry-based learning.

“It’s here that the biggest tectonic plate movement will happen in chemical engineering because all of the information that students used to spend hours learning and then putting down in three-hour exams is available on PCs and apps,” she says.

One way she is tackling this is by applying game theory in learning — with initial funding from EIT Raw Materials, Berlin, an organization that focuses on raw-materials innovation and entrepreneurship. “We want all of this experience built into a game so that students can build and run plants and investigate every aspect of their operation. So I’m trying to bring experience to them through a medium that they are used to.”

A two-year project begins in January 2017. However, Glassey admits final roll-out is still quite a long way away.

This different way of learning will pose challenges to industry, too, she cautions. “Of course if we change our approach, the approach of operating companies is going to have to change, too. For example, interviews are typically conducted by experienced people who went through the mill some time ago. They often find it very difficult to understand how the new generation apply their different skills and expertise. This comes as a reality check and is another reason why progressive industrialists are so important,” she stresses.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at [email protected].

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