Advancing Workforce Skills Using Simulation-Based Training
Like nearly all industries that require skilled workers, the electrical utility industry currently faces the challenge of having enough trained and qualified workers to meet demand and changing market conditions.
According to a 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (see www.usenergyjobs.org), all energy sectors reported hiring difficulties: “Lack of experience, training, or technical skills were again cited as the top reasons for hiring difficulty by employers across all five surveyed sectors. The need for technical training and certifications was also frequently cited, implying the need for expanded investments in workforce training and closer coordination between employers and the workforce training system.”
One solution is to improve efficiencies in training processes and implement training systems that are attractive to women and racially diverse people, two of the groups the report recommends increasing recruitment of. Efforts of organizations like the Electrical Training Alliance (ETA) are demonstrating how successful new training technologies and methods can be used in battling the workforce problem. The ETA is a joint initiative between the National Electrical Contractors Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Its educators provide workplace safety materials, curriculum and training to more than 55,000 electrical apprentices and 700,000 journeymen.
Embracing Training Technology
Training based in technology is shown to measurably increase interest, effectiveness and retention. CM Labs worked with the ETA to incorporate simulation-based equipment operator training into their program. Such methods eliminate or greatly accelerate the time between learning a skill and applying it in the workplace.
Simulation-based training is a staple in many industries, including construction, forestry and material handling. Today it is gaining momentum for utility applications. Like many education-based organizations, trade unions and vocational schools, the ETA’s blended learning approach has seen a recent shift from paper and lectures to technology, with a growing emphasis on simulation.
Cranes, bucket trucks and other forms of lifting and earthmoving equipment are used daily by utilities and utility contractors. Operational competency is central to safety. A 2022 study by the International Powered Access Federation (see www.ipaf.org/en-us/news/ipaf-global-safety-report-analyses-ten-years-incident-data) provides a glimpse of the types of aerial device accidents occurring in the utility sector, which represented 2% of all the industries reporting data but accounted for about 23% of all lost-time accidents. Reports by machinery category show that bucket truck-style equipment (static boom type 1b) was the third most common type of mobile elevating work platform to be involved in incidents, across all industries.
In response, training organizations continue to place an emphasis on equipment operator training. Believing that crane safety was too important for simply traditional training methods, Virgil Melton, director at the ETA, was heavily involved in the purchase of a CM Labs crane simulator. The ETA also purchased boom truck and earthmoving equipment simulations along with an Instructor Operating Station. With CM Labs’ embedded smart training technology, they are the only simulations that accurately replicate machine behavior, helping to accelerate learning and delivering measurable productivity and safety gains.
But simulators aren’t exclusive to heavy-equipment operators; rounding out the ETA’s training arsenal are simulators that provide hands-on instruction for electrical grounding applications and those individuals who service or install transformers and work on or with other hazardous equipment.
The opportunity to engage in simulated interactions with equipment, controls, landscapes, structures, people, weather conditions and challenges means that all senses are invoked as trainees are immersed in a strikingly realistic environment. Complete with all the pressure and distractions, sessions can be intense. However, simulators allow mistakes to be made without costly or dangerous consequences.
“As an instructor, you take a student out to the field, and when they see this huge piece of sophisticated equipment, they’re understandably intimidated,” Melton explained. “But when they begin learning on a simulator, their comfort level and confidence increase dramatically. With a simulator, if somebody doesn’t do something correctly, you just hit the reset button. On the work site or in the training yard, if a piece of equipment is turned over, there is a good chance for injury, and you’re out hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you can buy a lot of simulators and put a lot of people through training for half a million dollars.”
Some advanced simulators allow instructors to interact directly with trainees, set scoring targets, adjust weather, trigger random mechanical faults, and monitor the actions and progress of each operator – from the beginning through certification/recertification.
Simulation directly addresses health and safety metrics by reducing injury and allowing trainers to track the number of accidents and near-misses during exercises. For the ETA, this ability to objectively capture unsafe equipment operation – such as collisions and contacts with power lines, personnel and vehicles – provides succinct and immediate feedback to help operators avoid such hazards on the physical work site. The ETA’s crane simulator is quickly becoming a key part of the organization’s learning plan to prepare operators for the certification program through the Electrical Industry Certifications Association. The simulation exercises, inspired by the certification requirements, mirror exact applications – such as auger control and pole control and setting – rather than generic scenarios. This translates directly into higher success rates as trainees are better prepared for both written and practical exams.
According to Melton, since incorporating simulators into its curriculum, the ETA has seen a real change in engagement. “Moving from reading materials to hands-on simulators, we’re seeing a surge in excitement and time spent learning,” he said. “While someone might have spent maybe a couple of hours reading documentation, it’s not uncommon to see them spending all day Saturday on a simulator. As a result, our apprentices have fewer accidents than our journeymen. We sometimes hear how an apprentice helps a journeyman avoid danger because of what was learned in class.”
Employing simulators reduces training hours spent on physical equipment. This saves costs associated with fuel consumption and equipment maintenance. Similarly, contractors often face the dilemma of removing a piece of revenue-generating equipment from service for training purposes. By mirroring actual equipment controls, performance and working conditions, simulators provide the advantages of training on actual equipment without sacrificing profitability.
For All Levels
Somewhat surprisingly, the fatal work injury rate within the utility industry increases as workers age. This could indicate that as they settle in, workers become overly confident or complacent. Replicating real-world scenarios is shown to increase learning and retention over classroom instruction or printed materials alone, and this translates into higher certification exam success. Similarly, journeymen operators benefit with respect to recertification, cross-training, upskilling and keeping current with best practices and new equipment features.
Simulators also allow operator competence to be assessed quickly and accurately. For most organizations, this is an important aspect of the hiring process, and for training organizations, this helps to benchmark a starting point and track progress. Often, simulators can be a humbling experience for even the most tenured industry veteran.
“A lot of experienced operators think they know everything,” Melton said. “But when you sit them down on a simulator, they quickly understand that they have a lot to learn.”
This self-awakening is important in an industry where hazards are often literally inches away, and it helps employees of all paygrades to remain vigilant, apply safety best practices and respect the hazards.
Thanks to organizations like the ETA, the electrical industry is making real strides in preparing utility workers for the industry and improving safety. And because the flexibility of simulators allows users to respond to feedback from the field with custom training scenarios, the ETA is well-equipped to meet the changing needs of the utility industry workforce.
However, despite measurable improvement, the electrical utility industry remains inherently hazardous. Working with and near high-voltage equipment, power lines and machinery always includes risks. For this industry, the days of paper-based instruction are over. Leading organizations like the ETA are continuing to set the pace in advancing safety by leveraging technology for the most effective training solutions.
About the Author: Christa Fairchild is the Construction Division product marketing manager for CM Labs Simulations, developer of Vortex training simulators.
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