Operator Qualification and Training for the Power Industry

Skill levels generally differ between plant operator shifts. Further, these differences often cause divides among the shifts that result in unequal divisions of responsibility. Comprehensive, performance-based training and qualification programs can close the skill gaps, ensuring high-level performance across every shift.

There is frequently a shift at a power plant that has fewer problems than the others and is trusted to perform the most-complex operational sequences. Conversely, there is typically a shift that must be closely monitored due to its inability to properly respond to abnormal conditions or operations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Developing Common Proficiencies

A great article on the go2hr.ca website explains why effective employee training and qualification programs are worth the investment for almost every business. The power industry is no exception, which is why managers in the power industry must ensure that they have well-developed training and qualification programs. Effective programs typically consist of system operations manuals; simplified flow diagrams; study guides; progression testing; job performance measures (JPMs), sometimes referred to as task qualification evaluations; and trainee progress cards. The most-effective programs also use a simulator to assist in training and evaluating employees.

These training and qualification programs are usually developed after conducting a thorough training needs assessment and/or job training analysis of the operations organization. These assessments will determine what is necessary to improve job performance. Once an assessment is complete, a facility can begin developing the appropriate training and qualification programs.

Fig 1_Training Needs Assessment
1. Filling knowledge gaps. A training needs assessment can uncover weak areas in knowledge and operational skills, such as was identified in the survey results shown here. Courtesy: Fossil Consulting Services

Figure 1 illustrates a portion of the results from a typical training needs assessment performed for a joint power agency. Control room operators from several power plants were asked about their mastery of skills and knowledge in various areas, and whether or not they believed more training was needed in each area. As can be seen in the figure, the majority of control room operators in this particular survey felt they could use training in the area of electrical distribution. By performing a similar training needs assessment, any plant can uncover areas where operators may be deficient. Management can then develop training focused on areas to close knowledge gaps.

When developing a training and qualification program, it is important to use up-to-date existing plant documentation and operating knowledge obtained from the most-experienced experts on the team. Up-to-date plant documentation ensures only accurate equipment details are used. Including new features, which may have been previously overlooked, will be helpful to new operators learning their positions. It is also very important to use competent and experienced operators to augment plant documents because certain “nuggets” of operating knowledge may only be known by a select few operators, who have decades of experience under varying operational scenarios. Their insight must, of course, be vetted appropriately.

Outside Training Consultants

Development of training and qualification programs can be done in-house, but it is often more-effectively accomplished by hiring outside training consultants (Figure 2). Where power producers once had large training departments, the competitive nature of the power industry has led to often-extreme workforce reductions, including the elimination of some in-house training assets. Training consultants with experience in the industry have a wide array of solutions that can be used to create custom or generic training programs.

Fig 2_Training Consultant
2. Qualified instructors at your fingertips. Outside training consultants often have the time and resources needed to develop an effective program. In this image, an instructor offers trainees instruction on the typical Rankine Cycle. Courtesy: Fossil Consulting Services

It is possible to train operators using existing plant documentation as a basic framework, but facility libraries tend to become depleted or poorly maintained over time. For example, at many locations the original plant training materials do not reflect updated control and operation of plant systems using a distributed control system. By producing and using up-to-date system operations manuals that are both specific to the plant and well-organized, training programs can be much more effective.

Documentation provided by vendors is often overly generic in nature or written for degreed engineers, in which case it can be difficult for the average operator to understand or apply. System operations manuals that use many photos and other illustrations help trainees to quickly grasp the design and function of each system and component. Further, system operations manuals designed with training and qualification in mind can be used to combine all the information trainees need to know and understand about every plant system related to their job in a single document. This document can be handed out to trainees at the beginning of their training and qualification program, and it can be used to both guide trainees in their studies and serve as a benchmark for what they need to know. This avoids wasting valuable training time having trainees hunt around the plant searching for up-to-date and relevant reference materials.

Flow Diagrams

One of the most important parts of any comprehensive performance-based power plant operations training and qualification program is the ability for trainees to walk-down each plant system they are or will be responsible for operating. Operators need to know where the major components, valves, and instrumentation are situated in the plant and the proper flows through the connected piping.

Fig 3_Simplified Steam System
3. Simple, yet effective. A simplified flow diagram can be easier for operators to understand and follow than a plant’s piping and instrumentation diagrams. Courtesy: Fossil Consulting Services

Often, piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) for a plant are the original versions provided by the companies that built the plant and are difficult to follow or out-of-date. When not “afraid” to look at them, because of the massive amount of information typically provided on them, trainees may spend excessive time trying to grasp the function of a system using the associated P&IDs. Using a simplified flow diagram, such as the one shown in Figure 3, can make the process easier. It includes directional arrows to indicate flow paths and color coding to trace piping, which can save operators much time in learning the system and building their confidence about the overall configuration of the system. Flow diagrams, when developed specifically to suit the needs of the operators, eliminate a lot of the unnecessary information that typically clutters up the P&IDs.

Study Guides

Study guides are another tool commonly used at power plants. These documents guide trainees through the various topics and activities they need to complete as part of their ongoing training and qualification program. Sometimes, generic online courses are available to plants, which trainees can use, along with plant-specific training and qualification documents.

The study guides direct trainees on which courses to take, what to study in the plant documentation, and what to research and walk down in the plant. Review questions for trainees to self-test their knowledge before taking qualification exams are also included to aid trainees in their course of study. Using a standard study guide ensures every trainee receives the same training and is tested on similar material.

Study guides also provide trainees with a way to guide themselves through important operational evolutions that must be demonstrated. Many times, these evolutions are performed under the direction of experienced, competent operators or supervisors. This approach permits trainees to develop a sound understanding of how each system operates. Observing and monitoring incumbent operators performing their duties and controlling the various plant systems during important startup and shutdown evolutions is essential for trainees to learn their jobs. Being able to discuss vital system components and operations with incumbents and supervisors is a key to success. Study guides listing specific tasks to achieve are a way for each trainee to obtain this necessary knowledge for each system without missing any requirements.

Progression Testing

Progression testing is another important aspect of training programs. Performance testing allows trainees to be assessed periodically on what they have learned at each step or level in the program.

If a trainee is struggling at certain points or throughout the training program, the trainee’s supervisor should be able to recognize deficiencies and steer the trainee toward successful program completion. Progression testing also prevents trainees proceeding to the next stage until they have become well-versed in the knowledge, skills, and tasks associated with the earlier stage.

Classroom, Computer, and Web-Based Training

Classroom, computer, and web-based training is frequently used to familiarize trainees with plant fundamentals, basic system configuration, controls, and operations. Completion of this training ensures all trainees in the program have the foundational core knowledge important in performing their jobs. Classroom training is preferred by many because an instructor can enhance the educational experience by gauging student comprehension and answering questions as the training proceeds, and as additional trainee developmental needs are identified.

On the other hand, some organizations select computer or web-based training, especially when used with a learning management system (LMS), as it reduces the burden of finding qualified teachers. Although this type of training can be somewhat interactive, it will not be to the same extent as having a professional instructor. Online training with an LMS can grade quizzes and tests, record the results, and create a permanent record of the training automatically for each trainee.

Simulator Training

Many power generation facilities procure operator training simulators and incorporate them into their control room operator training and qualification programs. Some organizations choose to invest in high-fidelity simulators that exactly replicate their plants, while others choose to invest in lower fidelity simulators that serve to familiarize trainees with plant controls. Lower fidelity simulators do not respond exactly as a plant would. Regardless, both types can be valuable tools for enhancing a trainee’s learning experience, increasing knowledge and skill retention, and ensuring the overall effectiveness of the program.

It is important in either case that the simulator be used within a formal, structured training program that ensures operators learn essential knowledge associated with a plant’s controls. Other things that can be simulated include both normal and abnormal operating conditions. A structured simulator training program can reduce the time needed for training, maintain trainees’ interest, and ensure all aspects of the job are taught.

Another reason simulators are valuable as a training tool is because they allow trainees to learn important operational tasks before attempting them on an actual operating unit. For example, a trainee can start up and place a unit online via the simulator dozens of times before conducting an actual plant startup. This familiarizes the trainee with both the plant controls and the operating procedures associated with a unit startup or shutdown. In addition, the simulator allows operators to experience simulated malfunctions and practice appropriate responses in a pure training environment with no chance of damaging the plant.

The capability of monitoring and evaluating trainees’ performance is also beneficial. Once an exercise is complete, the instructor can print a report that details a trainee’s performance and ability to maintain critical parameters within desired limits. The report can be a useful resource or tool for enhancing learning.

Job Performance Measures and Progress Cards

Comprehensive, performance-based training and qualification programs typically utilize JPMs to perform assessments. Important plant evolutions and operations are identified for each job, and experienced operators or supervisors evaluate trainees using JPM evaluation forms. The JPMs ensure trainees are able to satisfactorily perform plant evolutions on their own.

Although study guides lay out what is necessary for trainees to qualify for a job, it can be cumbersome for a trainee’s supervisor to track what has been completed. To alleviate this, trainee progress cards can be utilized to track where individual trainees are within their training program. These are sometimes referred to as “qual cards” and list everything that is required of a trainee to become qualified for a position. As the trainee completes each task required for their training and qualification, the item is checked off so that both trainees and their supervisors can track progress through the program. If the organization uses an LMS, they may be able to track the progress within the LMS system.

Certification Requirements

The benefits of training power plant operators within a defined scope are obvious. It is also important to understand that some states require facilities to certify plant personnel for continued operations. Requirements for certification to operate a steam plant vary significantly from state to state. Some states, such as Minnesota and Maryland, require a license to operate boilers of a certain size. Many other states don’t. When licensing is required, the associated knowledge requirements should be incorporated into the qualification program to ensure that the plant is meeting all legal requirements to operate.

Utilizing a comprehensive, performance-based training and qualification program can greatly benefit both the operators and plant management. After implementing such a program, knowledge gaps across shifts should start to close, and operational mistakes are less likely to occur. This allows for safer, more-efficient power plant operation, which reduces costs and improves operational readiness and availability. Implementation should further benefit management by allowing more-flexible scheduling of resources, because over time all shifts should be at or near full qualification. ■

—James Wiggins is a senior specialist with Fossil Consulting Services.