Training For a Post-Apprenticeship World

Teaching gas safety to first responders at a new training center (Image credit: NiSource)

As NiSource rolls out a $30 billion long-term plan to modernize an electric and natural gas infrastructure that serves nearly 4 million customers in seven states, it’s also innovating how it recruits, trains and retains the employees who’ll maintain it.

“Maybe a quarter of our workforce is 55 years-old or more, and the average age is in the mid-40s,” said Jim Stanley, NiSource’s COO. “Many of them acquired their skills over years of service, and already possessed significant work experience when we first recruited them.”

“It doesn’t work like that anymore.”

A number of broad trends are responsible for the change, according to Stanley. One cause is students’ shift in interest in getting 4-year college degrees instead of vocational training. Another is the slowdown in building projects late last century, which reduced the opportunities for on-the-job training. It’s also a fact that a generation of would-be employees have grown up playing with smartphones and iPads instead of working on cars or building models.

“Fewer people are turning wrenches these days,” Stanley explained. “Our customer impacting field work is still very physical, so there’s a lot of competition for those who can work with both their minds and their hands.”

There’s also the element of time, since younger employees today may not be interested in investing the time required to learn skills through the real-time experiences of apprenticeship, and NiSource – which serves utility customers through its Columbia Gas and NIPSCO brands – doesn’t have the time to grant it. Those 55 year-olds are approaching retirement, and the company wants new employees responding to emergency calls on their own within a year (which is much quicker than in the past).

“We want to prepare for the future, but also spend money wisely,” Stanley said, noting that the company’s axiom is ‘invest where and when it’s prudent.’

In January 2014, the company started to research what its training program could become. Traditionally decentralized across its seven states, the quality and safety benefits of a unified approach were immediately apparent. The components of that approach, however, required investigation.

“We hosted internal focus groups, to learn what our experienced employees thought about how they’d acquired their skills, and then picked the brains of the labor unions about the training they provided in their apprenticeship programs,” said Stanley.

“We met with international companies like Caterpillar and BP, to learn how they train employees.”

“We talked to architects to discover what they were designing into buildings that we might encounter, and even visited FBI locations to see how they set-up mock towns to simulate situations our employees will encounter.”

Some consistent, if not unsurprising themes emerged from that research, especially as it related to Millennial recruits: They like to learn from experiences instead of being spectators, want to know their work means something, and expect regular engagement and feedback.

The new training regime, which debuted recently at a new, 22,000-square-foot facility in Monaca, Pennsylvania, combines classroom-based coursework, virtual simulation (for processes like operating construction equipment, and walking safely on slippery surfaces), and actual mock streets and buildings in which trainees can gain hands-on experience (it’s inviting community first responders to use the site, too).

Each participant will also be assigned a mentor (there’ll be 30-50 people in the center at any given time), and return periodically for updated training on such things as compliance. NiSource plans to apply the programming to new centralized training sites in Ohio, Virginia, and Massachusetts, as well as upgrade its existing facility in Indiana over the next few years.

“We’ll get employees trained and comfortable on the job faster, with the long-term intent to retain them,” Stanley said. “I have had the good fortune of working for two companies over 40 years, but I’ve had four different careers during that time. We want our employees to be ready for whatever way they choose to use their abilities.”