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Growing Talent Internally

Many maintenance managers and HR professionals are way too familiar with the frustrations of trying to find and recruit appropriate talent in high skilled trades. If left unchecked, these gaps can lead to production problems, excessive maintenance & repair costs, increased downtime, and even potential safety problems.

Efforts such as recruitment, and job-posting are getting less and less effective at solving these problems as the demand for skilled trades outpaces the supply pipeline.

One potential solution to this problem (though admittedly imperfect), is to develop talent internally.  

Although there are still a few top-level college programs for I&E trades, attending college full-time is simply not realistic for most plant technician candidates, and while the best condensed training courses (like my company offers) can help give someone a good start or can cover details of a certain area, they will only be able to cover a certain amount of material in the time allotted, and will not be able to realistically cover everything needed for someone to go from zero to hero in all areas of these demanding crafts.

One interesting alternative solution that I have had the job of observing first-hand, is for an organization to setup a well-organized self-study program coupled with a strategic developmental program, applied over a suitable period of time, with appropriate guidance, mentoring, progress checks, tutoring, and some final checks and balances to ensure all of the program expectations are met. With the right help, a program like this does not have to be a monumental task or break the budget, and the ROI for time and money spent can be huge.

Folks who may not have the perfect educational background - but who have the right attributes, coupled with personal drive, and an eagerness to learn can succeed wildly in the instrument, electrical, and automation fields if given the right guidance and support. I’ve seen techs who on paper alone, probably wouldn't have been given an interview at many companies - and yet many of these techs not only were able to achieve the standards – but have gone way beyond expectations and reached remarkable skill levels and have even become major forces for their organizations.

"Grow your Own" Internal Development Program

1. Determine Detailed Skills Needs - Have an appropriately skilled and knowledgeable coach/mentor analyze your facility, systems, and equipment to determine what specific knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed, and establish a clear list of detailed technical skills expectations for the applicable role (Some organizations may need help on this part of the program - but it is a very important part of the process and worth the investment).

Be very selective when picking ‘experts’ to help on projects like this – Experience or time in the craft alone does not equate to expertise! Many organizations have at least one very high-level person who could complete this part of the plan (or who can at least help significantly).

2. Identify Weaknesses of the Candidate - Have someone with verifiable expert knowledge in the craft perform a skills assessment of applicable individuals to determine which areas need improvement or development. This should include fundamentals along with specific details pertinent to the facility and role.

3. Set up Progress Plan – Based on the Skills assessment, layout a sequence and target timeline for the developing technician to beef up all weak areas. This should include frequent spot-checks and clear expectations for progression.

  • Note - A good Progress Plan should always start with solidifying the fundamentals - build from the ground up and avoid the 'feet of clay' scenario at all costs.

4. Provide Training and Developmental Resources (As Needed) – Most of the development could (and should) be done with self-study.

Always start with the fundamentals! Good hands-on training on the core fundamentals is one of the most helpful things you can do to kickstart the progress of a developing technician. This is where companies like Orion Technical Solutions, ISA, and others can be of great assistance in the overall plan.

The techs who will succeed in demanding fields such as Instrumentation, Automation, or Electrical Techs will need to be good at finding and comprehending information and even learning new material (because it'll always be a part of the job). So having them learn many of the topics largely on their own is a good way to determine if they really have what is needed to truly succeed in the field... Self-study is also a very efficient way to maximize gains at minimal cost with minimal disruption.

With good mentoring and guidance, a developing technician can efficiently study specific topics prior to certain upcoming work, and can cover the material in a logical sequence, at an achievable pace. A good mentor can provide ongoing guidance to maximize the efficiency of the process.

In addition to possible formal training in certain areas, a successful developmental program should typically include the following training & developmental resources:

Textbook - Provide a high-quality textbook to each developing technician (contact Author of this article for some recommendations if you are unsure or need input).

Not only are good textbooks great for providing initial learning resources – they are also extremely helpful to refer back to when needed.

Have the individual work through key parts of the textbook (even including some ‘homework’ type assignments to help solidify concepts and familiarity with key info).

A quality $150 Textbook can be one of the greatest training investments an organization can make - yet it is rarely part of most technical training plans!

Other Resources - Find & arrange other easily accessible training resources that can be utilized in the self-study portion of the developmental program. Now days, there is a ton of great material online, such as:

  • Lessons in Industrial Instrumentation – This in-depth 3300 page text reference is freely available online and is only one of the many incredible selfless contributions to industry from Mr Tony Kuphaldt.
  • Inst Tools website – This free forum/info site has tons of tutorials and many are quite helpful (but use caution and have an expert vet specific articles or videos to ensure full accuracy and applicability).
  • YouTube – If you haven’t looked at what is available in the technical craft areas on YouTube in the last few years, you need to - It's a remarkable and underutilized training resource! Many of these are very high-quality videos from vendors and other professional organizations and often include excellent, professionally created animations and explanations.
  • Google searches – A vast array of great resources are available online now days - but use caution (apparently, not everything on the internet is true or accurate...). It is wise to have someone with appropriate expertise, credentials, and experience vet out any info or other resources that you provide in your developmental program.

5. Perform Routine Progress Checks - The coach/mentor should conduct regular spot-checks to ensure progress and should adjust the plan and developmental aids where needed. These can be done remotely in many cases, but direct, hands-on observations are best.

6. Provide Tutoring / Mentoring (Where Appropriate)  Have a resource to provide tutoring where it makes sense. In some cases, this may be the assigned coach/mentor or a knowledgeable peer. This may be done remotely - but sometimes in-person hands-on tutoring (or formal training) may be necessary.

7. Final Assessment - When the technician candidate has completed the developmental stage of the program, conduct an official skills assessment (possibly a written exam coupled with certain practical skills demonstrations based on clear, detailed standards).

  • Ideally, this should be done by someone other than the assigned coach/mentor, and that person should provide feedback to applicable mentors as a means of checks & balances and to help identify and overcome any systemic weaknesses (tribal knowledge, etc.).

How NOT To Handle A Developmental Program

While there are many possible 'right ways' to develop talent - the only WRONG way (in the author's opinion) is to simply throw an underqualified person into a role with no clear plan to help them succeed. Even the most enthusiastic and brilliant individuals need guidance, direction, feedback, and training to succeed.

Many times, organizations place personnel into roles (such as Electrician or Instrument Technician) knowing the candidates are lacking some background or experience, but blindly assume they’ll somehow magically learn everything needed, simply by observing work and by helping other techs. The problem with these assumptions are:

  • The OJT (on the job training) rarely happens like it should due to workloads and/or due to lack of appropriate expertise, or lack of teaching & mentoring skills in available personnel.
  • Unless there is an established methodical program with proper emphasis on mentoring efforts, the candidates usually end up just carrying tools and doing the less enjoyable work for the senior technicians and often get stuck in a rut. Sadly, they often learn to survive by guessing, part-swapping, easter-egging, dodging difficult tasks, or other bad practices that are hard to fix later...
  • Without a strategic developmental PLAN, they rarely learn the underlying principles that are ESSENTIAL for long-term success, and therefore end up with significant weaknesses which impair their knowledge, and which also impede their ability to learn and comprehend things to properly develop and advance – all of which leads to weaknesses, mistakes, inefficiencies, and problems for all involved.

There are certainly additional solutions to solving the skills crisis in addition to this approach, and while the 'Grow your own' solution is probably not the preferred (ideal) situation - it can work well for many organizations, and it is an option that I've seen succeed.

In truth, I’d typically recommend folks who have an interest in Instrumentation or Industrial Electrical fields to attend a good Tech College or find an organization with internships (like IBEW) if they have that option – but that is just not always possible.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my career has been watching various Go-Getters climb from being a ‘Tubing Hand’ or a ‘Fire Protection Tech’ or 'Roustabout' or a 'Grunt Electrician' to become extremely skilled Instrumentation Techs, Electricians, or even Automation Techs and Control Engineers! I can't help but be inspired by folks like these who showcase the American Dream in the best possible ways.

In my observations, those individuals who were developed internally tend to be more loyal than ‘recruited’ talent, and many of the internally developed techs that I’ve observed over the years are still contributing and making their organizations better every day while greatly enjoying their advanced roles. So, I know that this type of approach can result in big wins for everyone involved and can be a great investment if it is done correctly.  

Mike Glass

About the author

Mike Glass

Mike Glass is an ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and a Master Certified Control System Technician (CCST III). Mike has 38 years of experience in the I&C industry performing a mix of startups, field service and troubleshooting, controls integration and programming, tuning & optimization services, and general I&C consulting, as well as providing technical training and a variety of skills-related solutions to customers across North America.

Mike can be reached directly via [email protected] or by phone at (208) 715-1590.