*As seen in Inspectioneering Journal’s March/April 2018 issue.
Last November, in Dallas, Texas, Inspectioneering and Pinnacle hosted a roundtable discussion for a select group of leading mechanical integrity (MI) and reliability experts in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. This inaugural forum, called the “Meeting of the Minds,” explored how the MI and reliability fields will have to prepare for the impending loss of knowledge resulting from the retirement of the baby-boomer generation — a national event known as the “Great Crew Change.” According to some reports, this represents as much as 50% of the current experienced workforce.
During the course of the roundtable discussion, the Great Crew Change issue was broken down into two critical challenges:
First, managers must find ways to preserve and effectively transfer to younger employees the institutional knowledge acquired by retiring engineers, inspectors, and other experienced professionals during the course of their careers.
Second, companies must find better ways to recruit and retain top talent to these fields to avoid gaps in this critical workforce.
The details of these challenges, the various proposed solutions, and other critical concerns and observations that were discussed are detailed in this article.
At the initiation of the discussion, the participants agreed that the “Great Crew Change” was a significant concern for all industry members, and that the mechanical integrity profession as a whole must seek solutions to current and upcoming knowledge transfer challenges or risk a steep, costly learning curve for new entrants into the industry. Knowledge transfer is a vital requirement to reduce the risk of increased errors, missed opportunities for safety advancements, or — worst case scenario — catastrophic events.
“The challenges discussed today are going to require dollars, training programs, and the commitment from a high level in our organizations,” said one group participant. “In fact, this discussion should be fodder for annual company meetings, industry process safety meetings, and other venues. And, we are going to have to prepare and deliver presentations about these critical challenges.” Such presentations should target upper management to ensure support for the process, the participant said. Meanwhile, management should be encouraged to support more mentoring programs to pass on knowledge to the new generation.
As it stands today, industry and company-led mentorship programs seem to be lacking, according to another panel member. Within the groups’ discussion, the consensus was that mentorship programs should be considered to be a basic need to sustain the organizational knowledge. However, many operators and contractors do not offer integrity guidance or career paths, and the mentorship practices that do occur seem to be more ad hoc, driven and conducted by concerned senior employees, as opposed to a clearly defined system or corporate program. Meanwhile, simply attracting enough personnel into the mechanical integrity discipline can be problematic.
“The other big issue we have, really, is attracting females,” said one participant. “50% of our potential talent base is greatly under-represented.” Efforts should be made to investigate why so few women are drawn to the field. In fact, a 2016 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center revealed that only 21% of American college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in engineering were women. Although this percentage is increasing, the overall rate of female engineering graduates is significantly less than their male counterparts.
Additionally, a very significant concern with today’s well-educated college graduates is that they are eager to jump into higher level positions instead of steadily working their way up the proverbial food chain of mechanical integrity. “I see too many millennials who come into the company and want to leap into management because they want that fast buck and respect,” said a panel member. It often takes years of experience to fully develop good / competent Corrosion/Materials and Fixed Equipment Engineers, and without that practical experience acquired on the job or via a mentoring program, there will be fewer true subject matter experts (SMEs) in the future.
Conversely, the opposite can be true. “In my company, we can’t get anyone to step up into integrity management,” another member said. “I’m frustrated with all of our engineers. Nobody wants a superintendent (i.e., supervisory) position. We’ve got a number of them posted now. Nobody wants it.”
Nonetheless, and in spite of inadequate mentoring programs and support for engineers that do aspire to management, several discussion group members agreed that current software and IT systems used to train and pass on knowledge are significantly better now than in the past. Computer database systems, with their associated consistency, are much better now than 30 years ago.
“With the 300 years of combined experience and knowledge that we have in this room alone, what do we need to do better to pass that knowledge on to train the next generation?” asked the panel moderator.
The participants agreed that a formal mentoring system would be superior to the current ad hoc method of mentoring. For now, most of the mentoring occurs when “we see someone who is really interested in this business and we just take them under our wing,” according to one participant. In some companies, a system exists for a manager to volunteer to be a mentor, but it is not a required duty or procedure for anyone, with no minimum number of mentors per department or location.
Subject Matter Experts
During the discussion, another solution was suggested: Instead of attempting to transfer years of general experience and knowledge to each young engineer, some companies are deliberately creating subject matter experts (SMEs) for specifically-defined units or processes.
For example, a new engineer could be trained to be a heater specialist. Another might be encouraged to be a refractory SME. This allows for heavy training in a particular discipline while still being tasked with general duties for overall experience. If successful, the engineer would attain “ownership” of a particular topic area, as opposed to trying to have each of ten people trained to be generalists (or, as the cliche goes: “jack of all trades, master of none”).
However, the downside to this strategy could be that a young engineer being shepherded into an SME role for a particular fixed equipment area might see that assignment as a “dead end,” or as creating limited opportunities for advancement early in his or her career.
New mechanical engineering hires are typically placed into any of three types of engineering: project, equipment, or field engineering. Oftentimes, the process people (chemical engineers) advance through the company ranks faster than mechanical engineers. This situation can be discouraging to new mechanical engineers, who may seek to change jobs, companies, or even careers in order to move up; thus adding to the attrition of experienced personnel for integrity engineering. As with any generality, a lot of exceptions exist, but the participants were in general agreement that this is somewhat of a norm in the industry. A similar situation exists for inspectors. Some see more chances for advancement to higher salary levels by moving into maintenance.
What more should companies be doing to promote the mechanical integrity discipline as a place where one can grow and advance — and not just consider it a “tour of duty” before moving on?
One panelist suggests that industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute should hold more frequent conferences like the Inspection Summit to keep young engineers and inspectors involved and engaged. Managers should go out of their way to send young engineers to these meetings. Elsewhere, events like NACE and ASME forums give new engineers various opportunities to participate and feel involved.
“Companies should let non-greybeards participate in these events so they feel like they’re a part of something bigger,” a member suggested. “This could increase engagement. How can we make this happen?”
Responses to that question included a suggestion to make a better effort to communicate to executives the benefits of sending young integrity professionals to these meetings. Experienced engineers should explain the business case for this so management does not consider this activity as losing three or four days of work from their employees.
“The young engineers need to travel and should make presentations so they know they can contribute and participate.” They can become more engaged and can network with other young engineers but also with a wide variety of older, more experienced integrity specialists.
While the participants agreed that most companies are willing to entertain the theory of career development programs, more effort should be made to formalize them. Companies should recognize the value of attending industry forums, going to other sites and participating in audits or turnaround scope reviews, and add those to career paths. These types of activities should be officially recognized, agreed the discussion participants. Another suggestion was to develop the practice of having internal company learning sessions or classes, whereby experienced inspection engineers present lessons learned to young integrity professionals on specific units and within specific types of situations.
“We need to explain, ‘Here is what you need to know about this unit, because we are not going to be around in 10 years to show you this,’” stated one participant.
As the meeting continued, the talk turned to discussion of the best and most fit-for-purpose software systems, programs, and platforms available to pass on knowledge. Suggestions included building content to include historical and current lessons learned, and to make that content accessible and deliverable to young integrity engineers.
One idea that was suggested was to make content available in an online wiki-like format. Another suggestion was to ensure that content is interactive, vetted, and maintained periodically going forward. In other words, developers and users should look beyond building just a five-year document. It should be evergreen. (Note that this idea was proposed at the API Fall Meeting to update the old “Areas of Vulnerability” document and bring it into the mainstream as an interactive / searchable database. Look for future development on API RP 589).
Furthermore, intense efforts should be made to ensure young integrity engineers are made aware of the vast database of knowledge and where to find it. The information must be usable, and young engineers should be involved in the development process to encourage ownership.
Another challenge is to link information and incident report queries in a way that is logical and streamlined to reach the relevant information, hopefully in context. “It’s one thing to link the various elements of integrity and reliability together. But then how do you organize and catalog everything so there is flexible access, like to a [API RP] 571 damage mechanism with a bunch of incident reports that are linked to that specific damage mechanism?”
Participants agree that the software platform has to be built with cross references. One suggestion was to hashtag equipment and damage modes, for example. So an article on a specific damage mechanism could also be linked and cross referenced to a certain unit or damage mode.
The group also concluded that a mechanical integrity wiki application and website could include digital networking. When engineers sign up, they can be queried as to whether they would like to opt in to share information. Another option would be to allow contact between website users. Furthermore, the website and app should include virtual “help doctors,” much like a lifeline phone-a-friend contacts, via instant messaging and chat links.
“Is the goal to create more greybeards or is it to get to the point where you don’t need them?” asked a participant. Participants agreed that management should find a way to leverage computerized systems that aren’t reliant on “what’s in people’s heads.” The method would be more prescriptive, driven by creating systems that contain lessons learned and corrosion control documents (CCDs), among others. The system should also capture the knowledge from a typical 100-page document and incorporate that into a system that drives a better inspection plan and “makes sure you don’t make the same mistakes others made in the past.”
As the meeting began to draw to its conclusion, some basic principles regarding data, knowledge, and wisdom arose.
- The highest level of learning comes from pain, difficulty, and experience.
- We don’t gain the depth of most wisdom until we experience it.
- We need to teach young inspectors how to make decisions with confidence by really mastering their profession.
- When we see a young engineer with a passion for mechanical integrity, we know it is worth our time to mentor him or her.
The minimum expectation of “keeping it in the pipes” can nearly always be accomplished by shutting down operations and/or replacing something. However, the wisdom to understand all the risks, to know which risks are acceptable, and the overall consequences and dynamics of each risk, takes more understanding than that found in a database. With such wisdom, the real-time decision to not shut down or replace can be made with confidence.
Clearly, the group doesn’t want the next generation to have to go through all of the failures and “trials by fire” it did, but conversely, wisdom is about the application of data and knowledge. And “application” means experience, they agreed. Somehow, methods must be devised to distill, for example, seven years of experience into three years of transferable knowledge.
“We keep coming back to not knowing how to really impart this wisdom to people without them actually experiencing it,” said a group member. In fact, what the greybeards learned in 10 years might actually take new personnel 20 years to learn because they might never even see the equipment that has been installed during the past several decades. Training on today’s technology does not necessarily prepare the next generation to predict the risks of operating older units, vessels, and rotating equipment.
During an “Aha!” moment, the participants envisioned creating an artificial, virtual learning environment where both practical usage and testing would be possible. Even an artificially engineered environment that could mirror actual and historical operations, as well as “unforeseen” incidents, could be an incredible tool to jumpstart knowledge transfer and mentoring activities to the next generation. As one participant said, “You don’t need 35 years to become a good decision maker, but you do get better with every experience and decision you make.”
The group suggested that an artificial environment, whether based in a real-world facility, or in a virtual reality setting, should codify and systematize lessons learned, and train people to work with facility equipment.
“We can’t really short-circuit the wisdom experience, but what if we were to create this type of program that had eight to ten steps that are heavily infused with operating experiences and failures that inexperienced inspectors and engineers had to progress through? The curriculum would include people passing on experiences throughout the entire process, and have real people teach through real experiences.”
The catch? Time and money. To acquire access to processing equipment, virtual reality gear, and other technology requires a serious commitment of capital, planning, design, and implementation man hours. While some third-party contractors might be willing to build this type of training and testing facility, the processing facility managers themselves would almost certainly have to contribute efforts and capital.
Overall, the group’s consensus was to continue to improve systems and procedures, train inspectors how to properly capture data, and improve the ability of new personnel to interpret and analyze that data correctly. After all, inspection data interpretation is often based on practical experience as opposed to depending solely on a software program.
Amongst the discussion participants, it is well-known that top executives undoubtedly desire safe and economical operations through effective, well-managed integrity programs. But simultaneously, within some organizations there exists a trend of upper management executives asking inspection professionals and supervisors to take on significant risk, while failing to adequately support those individuals or to reward them accordingly. Would these same executives be willing to support an untested knowledge transfer method in their budgets without a guaranteed rate of return? How can mechanical integrity professionals incite passion to upper management to support knowledge transfer to the next generation?
Perhaps these are questions for the next roundtable event.
Inspectioneering and Pinnacle would like to thank all of the participants for joining in this discussion of these critical issues and sincerely appreciates the dedication of their time to share their thoughts and experiences with our community.