Out of the classroom, into the Web

1 March 2007

How one US power company has met the challenge of training a well-qualified workforce by exploiting the advantages of web based teaching.

All power companies have to face the problem of locating, hiring and training a well-qualified workforce, including seasoned power plant personnel (operators, mechanics, I&C technicians, electricians and other skilled workers). To meet this challenge, the leading power companies are offering their employees various types of “blended learning”, which acknowledges that combining multiple training methodologies (for example, classroom training, structured on-the-job training, web-based training and other methods) produces a more effective training programme. This approach seems to be less costly and produce a greater level of understanding, and in a shorter training time.

Minnesota Power operations training administrator John Batchelder, an MP veteran of 29 years, is convinced of the truth of this. Along with managers in 140 other power companies John is currently using a Web-based ‘learning portal’ (General Physics Corporation’s GPiLearn portal) to manage the training and qualification of new and existing MP employees.

People tend to be task-oriented in fulfilling job responsibilities, and sometimes they can overlook how vital their work is to co-workers. For this reason training offered to MP employees needs to include the big-picture fundamentals on how electricity is generated. MP established the operations training administrator position in 1999 and began work on improving training opportunities for employees at MP’s Boswell facility. John Batchelder’s approach was based on a ‘something for everyone’ philosophy; providing a variety of opportunities from beginner to advanced levels.

In 2004, it was decided to step up the training goals for staff at all MP plants. Since classroom training was becoming more challenging, owing to staffing levels and scheduling problems, the benefits associated with Web-based training were investigated to help improve the reach and cost-effectiveness of MP training programmes. WBT has grown steadily over the past few years and MP wanted to take advantage of its benefits.

Several WBT vendor offerings were examined and their capabilities and curricula reviewed. The GPiLearn System was selected as the most suitable based on price, quality and the applicability of training modules.

Basic courses

Employee interest in the courses has increased steadily to classes of up to 200 at a time, and to the extent that the GPiLearn training content has been augmented with MP-specific training developed internally. Right now, employees can tap into a total of 3 200 lessons and tests from the following WBT topics:

• Power fundamentals: 23 courses on power plant theory, equipment and mathematics

• Mechanical maintenance: 23 courses

• Electrical maintenance: 12 courses

• Instrumentation and control: 20 courses

• Plant operations: 15 courses

• Coal handling: 15 courses

• Boiler water chemistry: 5 courses

• Heat rate: 10 courses

• Combined cycle fundamentals: 7 courses for GE Frame 7FA and Siemens 501F gas turbine-based power plants

• OSHA compliance: 39 courses addressing Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulatory compliance

• Environmental compliance: 17 courses addressing environmental regulatory compliance.

Creating the curriculum

The MP site training co-ordinators can create specific curricula for different job positions (or levels), then track and administer the progress of each employee through the GPiLearn portal.

To augment the core training content, Batchelder and the site coordinators consulted with a GP training specialist to develop several training curricula. As employees complete the lessons at their own pace, they build their knowledge and progress to the next level. For example, a craft worker can advance from basic mathematical skills to more specific topics like gauges and instrumentation. “The training helps them handle their specific jobs better,” Batchelder said. “Because they now have power generation basics under their belts, they also have that big-picture view. Instead of just recalibrating an instrument, they know why the recalibration is important to their plant’s operation.”

They also created a lesson plan specific to each plant location that took into account its own particular characteristics. Interest in generation-wide learning has also sparked the creation of an operator apprenticeship position. “In operations, the apprenticeship programme was revitalised and that created more interest in training,” Batchelder said. Employees that successfully complete an apprenticeship are certified by the state as demonstrating expertise in their crafts. That means they can take certification status with them to another position at MP or a utility across the country.


Tests are included for employees enrolled in the WBT programme. The industry standard is for people to retain 70 % of the training they receive, so that’s MP’s standard, too. If employees don’t pass the first time, they can take the test again. Both employee and supervisor can also check on the employee’s progression through training levels at any time.

Supervisors like the new approach. First of all, employees have demonstrated interest. M P”s Boswell Energy Centre alone has 81 people enrolled. Most interest has been evinced by operators, fuels and instrumentation crafts employees; they comprise 99 % of the 138 employees, MP-wide, who have registered. Second, anyone regardless of their department may enroll.

Third, it has inspired several supervisors to contact Batchelder to ask whether additional training can be developed to help their employees achieve licenses required for certain MP positions. Fourth, strong interest among supervisors of new MP engineers has been shown to ensure that their staff gets the appropriate power fundamentals training.

And fifth, it’s sparked development of more apprenticeships, as well as new training development for specific apprenticeships. For example, two of MP’s managers, Mike Hambrock and Tom Hughes, contacted Batchelder to develop and create a hydro operations apprenticeship. The group is now developing that apprenticeship along with appropriate Web based training curriculum.

Through GP’s ‘co-funding’ option, MP, Ameren, Colorado Springs Utilities and other power companies are financially supporting the creation of more GP training modules. “It’s good for all parties involved,” Batchelder said. “GP can offer more training to all their clients, and co-funding utilities can get the training they want to develop for their own employees.” Additional training programmes for hydro plant operators, wind farm technicians, waste-to-energy plant operators and other job positions have been developed.

Looking back over what’s happened in just one year, Batchelder says it is gratifying to see employees responding to, and stepping up to help develop, more training opportunities. “We dropped a pebble into a pond a year ago and it’s just incredible how the ripples have spread.”

Typical page from the GPiLearn portal. Source - Bersin & Associates

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