When you’re planning training for your equipment operators, you have a number of options: traditional instructor-led training conducted in a classroom, hands-on practical training in the field, self-directed computer-based training programs (CBTs) and PC-based equipment simulators. The latter two have evolved to the point where they can add significant value as part of a blended learning program, as well as helping you to make better use of your limited resources.
The Limitations of Instructor-Led Training
Traditional classroom training is adequate for many training needs, but it does have several built-in limitations:
- It requires a trainer, which means you must limit training sessions to those times and locations where one is available. In smaller firms that can’t afford a dedicated trainer, that may mean pulling an operator off a production job to conduct these sessions.
- If you can’t afford to have a dedicated trainer on your team, you are limited to the knowledge of the person who does fill this role in your firm. Unless you have a virtuoso veteran operator on your team, he or she can’t possibly be an expert on all types of machinery and the best operating practices for each.
- An instructor is a human being. He has bad days at home, feels ill from time to time and just isn’t always able to bring his A-game to the task of training. This can lead to inconsistencies in the quality of training.
The Benefits of Computer-Based Training
Computer-based training offers some compelling advantages to utility contractors:
- CBTs are 100 percent consistent. The information they contain is delivered the same way, every time. There are no variations in the quality of the training delivered.
- CBTs are excellent for delivering basic machine knowledge — controls and what each one does, key instruments to which the operator must pay attention and the basic tasks that the machine performs on the jobsite.
The newest generation of CBTs can be delivered via the web, making it possible to conduct training any time, anywhere your operators have access to a high-speed Internet connection.
CBTs can incorporate multiple types of media and can convey information in ways that just aren’t possible with an instructor with PowerPoint slides. For example, a hydraulic excavator CBT could contain an animation that utilizes a top-down view to demonstrate “through the tail” and “over the side” loading of a truck. Another screen could use a series of graphical illustrations with callouts to show the steps in digging a trench safely. And yet another screen could incorporate picture-in-picture video to show an operator moving the controls on a skid steer loader, while a second camera shows how the machine’s bucket and arms are reacting to the operator’s control inputs. In the right hands, CBTs can be powerful learning tools.
Most modern CBTs include tests to measure what the trainee has actually learned. These test results can be used by the trainer to identify any weak areas, which can then be addressed with individualized coaching.
Test scores from CBTs can be stored on a Learning Management System (LMS) — a database that tracks the training that each trainee has received, and how he or she scored on the final tests for each program. This is a valuable record-keeping system that documents the training your company has given each operator — very valuable if an OSHA inspector ever comes calling! Even if you don’t utilize an LMS, many CBTs enable you to print out a personalized certificate of completion; you can give one copy to the proud trainee and put the other one in his or her file.
Computer-based training programs are not a substitute for instructor-led training. But they can be used together to provide your new hires with a higher overall quality of operator knowledge and proficiency.
One recommended approach is to use CBTs to give your trainees a solid foundation of machine and task knowledge, and then build upon that with more specialized instructor-led classroom and field training, where you can cover more complex topics. These could include common safety challenges when operating on jobsites, working during inclement weather conditions and other training specific to the types of work your company performs.
Another popular approach is to pause the CBT from time to time to add your own observations about the topic being covered or to cover related topics.
PC-Based Simulators Come of Age
PC-based simulators, which can run on high-end PCs and laptops with affordable gaming controls, provide hands-on heavy equipment training in a safe, simulated jobsite environment. Simulators are excellent for helping trainees learn basic control motions needed to perform common tasks and develop muscle memory for them. Once trainees transition to an actual machine, their practice on the simulator gives them a valuable head start on how to control it.
PC-based simulators can:
- Reduce the number of hours of “seat time” trainees need to become proficient operators.
- Reduce the need to pull a machine out of production to perform field training.
- Reduce the fuel costs associated with training new operators; in a number of cases, contractors have discovered that their simulators have delivered a return on investment in a year or less, based only upon the fuel savings.
- Reduce the wear and tear on machines used for training. For example, a trainee who has practiced how to operate a simulated hydraulic excavator is less likely to collide with the side wall of a real truck when loading it or to slam hydraulic cylinders open and closed, which can damage them.
- Capture data on how well a trainee has performed a specific task. This data can be compared to performance benchmarks and used to develop customized coaching plans to help trainees overcome weak areas.
- Be integrated with CBTs and instructor-led training to provide a comprehensive, blended learning solution. Why is this important? People learn in different ways. Some are primarily visual, others kinesthetic (tactile) or auditory learners. An integrated “learn/try/do” approach helps trainees retain more of what they’ve learned and is ideally suited to the needs of adult learners.
PC-based simulators also have another surprising benefit: Because they are highly portable, you can easily transport them to job fairs, high schools and other places to recruit new operator candidates.
In addition, they provide an objective way to test the aptitude of all candidates before you make hiring decisions. Imagine if you could focus on the 20 percent of candidates who demonstrate the greatest natural aptitude for equipment operation, rather than making your best guess of who has the best potential. This numbers-based approach is possible today; it’s already being done by several municipalities in eastern Canada, where it has become an invaluable part of their hiring process.
How to Select the Right Training for Your Crews
First, perform a training assessment. Determine which programs and practices have been effective from your existing training methods and which ones need to be improved. Ask yourself questions like these:
- What operator needs aren’t being adequately addressed?
- What gaps do you see in your current training?
- Which types of machines and work practices need special attention in terms of operator training?
- Where do operators seem to be struggling?
- What inconsistencies do you observe from one operator to another?
- What type of work are you having to re-perform? Is that a training issue?
Next, identify training providers that have programs that look like a good fit for your needs. If their programs are web-based, you should be able to purchase limited-time access to full training modules. Purchase access to some of these classes and assess how well each one fits with your current and future needs. No program is going to be a perfect fit; just look for something that comes close. You can always fill in the gaps with instructor-led classroom or field training sessions.
Don’t forget to look to your industry associations for training resources. For example, the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) offers a Pipelayer Installation training series that was developed by VISTA Training to cover the best practices for this important jobsite task. NUCA also offers other training resources that may help meet your training needs.
Software-based training isn’t a panacea for all of the needs of utility contractors. But it is an important tool that should be part of your training arsenal. As you can see, it can easily be integrated with classroom and field training to help your operators raise their level of productivity, proficiency and jobsite safety.
Chuck Frey is the Marketing Manager for Vista Training Inc.