January/February 2013
Tips and Strategies for Managers | executive corner

Training: One size does not fit all

By Jerry Spindler

The process control industry is facing a major crisis: Engineers and technicians are nearing retirement age, and not enough trained and knowledgeable people are entering the workforce to replace them. End-user companies, systems integrators, and engineering procurement & construction (EPC) firms are trying to fill this void by sending new hires, as well as more experienced employees, to training schools.

We have seen the effects of this at Endress+Hauser, with training program enrollment at the seven training centers increasing 50 percent in 2012 and projects underway to build five more training facilities in the U.S. to keep up with the demand. Others are seeing the same trend, and training schools are being set up at community colleges, vocational schools, and even universities. ISA is expanding its training courses and conducting them all over the country. Other vendors in the process control industry are increasing training efforts. Online courses and videos are becoming available. The problem is that canned, one-size-fits-all classroom training does not meet the needs of most students.

Students need to get their hands on actual equipment, apply what they learned in class, see how real instruments work with a real control system, and work with the same kind of instruments they have in their plants. For example, an Endress+Hauser Process Training Unit (PTU) enables hands-on learning, as each PTU is equipped with live instrumentation connected to a process control system controller. Simulation software emulates an actual process plant's response to process changes and upsets, so a student can see the results of changes made to both instruments and control systems.

Today, learning how a flow or pressure transmitter works and how to apply it is only half the battle. A student also has to learn how to use modern technologies, such as diagnostics, remote calibration techniques, fieldbus digital communications, asset management, and maintenance programs. Remote access to instrument data is another key area, whether via a web browser or a smartphone app.
The best way to teach these and other topics related to instrumentation and automation is by combining classroom training with hands-on learning.

Training at a customer's site allows students to learn on the actual instruments they will be working with, typically in the instrument lab. Training programs can also be customized, off-site training so that the instruments and control system closely mimic the trainee's actual process plant, with the further benefit of simulation. Many users have a group of technicians with a wide variety of needs - some experienced people, some new - and training can be tailored to meet their needs.

The point of all this is that process automation professional training nationwide has to adopt a similar hands-on approach. Our recommendations are:

  1. Combine classroom training with hands-on learning. This should include actual instrumentation connected to a control system and a plant simulator. Endress+Hauser and other vendors have been donating instruments to local schools for several years, and we should all continue this effort - but schools also need to make sure that their labs are kept up to date.
  2. Ensure that material taught in classrooms is modern, up-to-date, and covers all the latest developments in instrumentation, such as fieldbus and remote access. ISA could play a major role in helping to standardize training courses at vocational schools and community colleges.
  3. Invite local schools to send their students to a fully equipped training facility to get hands-on experience. Endress+Hauser has "open visit" days at its training sites for students to attend.
  4. Develop online modules that cover theory and concepts as prerequisites, for less classroom time and more hands-on time in a lab. Firms and schools that offer a combination of online, classroom, and hands-on training are ideal.

We understand that it is very difficult to set up and maintain hands-on fixed or mobile training facilities; that is why few vendors or schools offer this capability. The cost of procuring, installing, and maintaining the required instrumentation, control system, and simulation software can be quite high.

Nevertheless, if we want to solve the coming workforce crisis through proper training, then hands-on learning will be required to achieve optimal results.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jerry Spindler (Jerry.spindler@us.endress.com) joined the Endress+Hauser team in 1996 as a flow product manager. With more than 25 years of industry experience, he holds a B.S. in electronics technology and an M.B.A., and has been an active Senior Member of ISA for more than 20 years.