Retaining knowledge in the face of attrition is important

Recent surveys show that industries are beginning to face dire shortages of skilled staff. Various survey results have revealed that this issue is expected to worsen. This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Robert Jewell | August 16, 2016

Recent surveys show that industries are beginning to face dire shortages of skilled staff. Various survey results have revealed that this issue is expected to worsen. New workers are not entering the sector as fast as veterans are or will be retiring. Some survey results indicate a backlog of baby-boomer retirees is expected to turn over 30 to 40 percent of the industrial sector workforce. Our young people also seem to be choosing career paths other than biofuels. 

All of these factors are problematic, but that is not all to be said regarding the subject. Increased complexity of systems necessary to remain competitive in challenging economic and operating environments means companies must attract and retain all of the experience and knowledge they can to be successful in progressively competitive markets. This will become more challenging as highly desired skill sets transfer extremely well between various utilities (power generation), some institutional sectors and other sectors of industry, including the biofuels industry. As the pool of experienced, knowledgeable individuals in these sectors shrinks, companies likely will find they increasingly are dependent on inexperienced personnel. The shrinking pool of experienced individuals will lead to greater and greater competition to attract and retain those individuals. Some plants have utilized consultants to fill the gaps in the available workforce pool and that trend probably will grow. 

In the ethanol plant, if there are interruptions in operation or excursions from normal operating parameters, the implications can be great. Even slight deviations from optimal parameters, if not identified and corrected in a timely manner, can result in downtime, reduced plant efficiency, lost production, diminished product throughput or quality, off-spec product, lost revenue or increased cost of operations, to mention just a few. Furthermore, diligence must be exercised in monitoring the day-to-day operations of the plant to sustain operating efficiencies and control the costs of operations.

Ethanol plants are complex systems. Diligence must be exercised to appreciate and understand the inherent complexity of these plants and the various and numerous subsystems involved, which means experienced and knowledgeable personnel are needed. The individuals operating and maintaining the plant need to be proficient in all aspects of the plant and the nuances associated with assuring prolonged and sustained safety in operations including operating efficiencies, system reliability, operating consistencies and protection of assets.

When faced with attrition, this can be a daunting challenge. That is where tools such as written procedures become helpful. Common examples of written procedures include standard operating, shutdown and startup, maintenance and emergency. Several visual guides also are used frequently for maintenance, inspection and cleaning.

Often, these procedures are basic and lack the detail required to be useful, so the value and usefulness of these tools also is limited. When procedures are well-written, clear, concise and include the degree of detail appropriate for the task, they are more likely to be found useful and used on the frontline. Procedures also need to be updated frequently to assure accuracy is maintained when conditions, equipment or operating parameters change. 

Procedures that provide useful information and clear and easy-to-follow instructions include:

• The purpose or scope of the operation.

• Equipment and tools required to perform the operation.

• Personal protective equipment and other equipment or materials required.

• References to other useful documents such as safety data sheets, lockout-tagout procedures, original manufacturer manuals.

• A specific sequence for tasks to be completed.

• Considerations such as other systems or subsystems impacted by the work.

• Visual references such as flowcharts, pictures, diagrams or illustrations.

Good procedures provide more predictability in completing tasks and can be valuable in helping employees improve their skills and become more proficient in the task at hand. It also can result in improved confidence of the employee regarding the task at hand and reduced stress levels. Procedures provide instructions that tell them what to do and how to do it.

In addition, procedures should not just be thought of as a tool to tell someone how to do something. Well-written and useful procedures also introduce a way to communicate practices and procedures that can:

• Save time and resources.

• Prevent accidents and injuries.

• Convey best practices and procedures.

• Reveal practices and procedures that can have practicality in other applications.

• Prevent recurring mistakes.

• Reduce the time required to train new employees.

• Facilitate and ease the periodic retraining of employees.

• Ensure consistent results by reducing variability for identical tasks being completed by multiple individuals.

• Facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills when experiencing attrition.

Losing talented and experienced individuals creates a real challenge for many sectors of industry, including the biofuels industry. Written procedures can help to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills that reduces variability and mistakes and can help to ensure ethanol plant performance is not compromised even when experiencing elevated levels of employee attrition. 

Furthermore, it may be desirable for the users of the procedures to participate in the creation of these documents. Those same users could be considered subject matter experts and can provide valuable input in the initial creation of those documents as well as assuring the ongoing accuracy of these living documents. Additionally, individuals who participate in the process of creating procedures have been found to more readily accept and use them. This opportunity to participate also fosters a sense of ownership. 

Procedures and guides come in many types and forms and are used for various purposes and numerous applications. Implementing the utilization of well-written procedures is just one tool in the arsenal available for managers to use in combating the implications of employee attrition.

Author: Robert Jewell
Energy Systems Chief Engineer,
Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company