The nuclear power industry is facing significant employee turnover, which may be exacerbated by the need to staff new nuclear units. To maintain a highly skilled workforce to safely operate U.S. nuclear plants, the industry must find ways to expedite training and qualification, enhance knowledge transfer to the next generation of workers, and develop leadership talent to achieve excellent organizational effectiveness.
Faced with these challenges, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the organization charged with promoting safety and reliability across the 65 nuclear electric generation plants operating in the U.S., created a “Future of Learning” initiative. It identified ways the industry can maintain the same high standard of excellence and record of nuclear safety, while accelerating training development, individual competencies and plant training operations.
The nuclear power industry is facing the perfect storm. Like much of the industrialized world, it must address issues associated with an aging workforce since many of its skilled workers and nuclear engineering professionals are hitting retirement age, moving out of the industry and beginning other pursuits.
Second, as baby boomers transition out of the workforce, they will be replaced by an influx of Generation Y workers. Many workers in this “millenials” generation are not aware of the heritage driving the single-minded focus on safety. They are asking for new learning models, utilizing the technologies which are so much a part of their lives.
Third, even as this big crew change takes place, there is increasing demand for electricity. Many are turning to cleaner technologies – solar, wind, and nuclear – to close the gap. And there is resurgence in requests for building new nuclear plants, or adding new reactors at existing plants. This nuclear renaissance also requires training and preparation to take on the task of safely and reliably operating our nuclear power plants.
It is estimated there will be an influx of 25,000 new workers in the industry over the next five years, with an additional 7,000 new workers needed if just a third of the new plants are built. Given that incoming workers are more comfortable using technology for learning, and that delivery models that include a blend of classroom-based, instructor-led, and Web-based methods can be more effective and efficient, the industry is exploring new models and a new mix of training.
INPO was created by the nuclear industry in 1979 following the Three Mile Island accident. It has 350 full-time and loaned employees. As a nonprofit organization, it is chartered to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability – in essence, to promote excellence – in the operation of nuclear electric generating plants. All U.S. nuclear operating companies are members.
INPO’s responsibilities include evaluating member nuclear site operations, accrediting each site’s nuclear training programs and providing assistance and information exchange. It has established the National Academy for Nuclear Training, and an independent National Nuclear Accrediting Board. INPO sends teams to sites to evaluate their respective training activities, and each station is reviewed at least every four years by the accrediting board.
INPO has developed guidelines for 12 specifically accredited programs (six operations and six maintenance/technical), including accreditation objectives and criteria. It also offers courses and seminars on leadership, where more than 1,500 individuals participate annually, from supervisors to board members. Lastly, it operates NANTeL (National Academy for Nuclear Training e-Learning system) with 200 courses for general employee training for nuclear access. More than 80,000 nuclear workers and sub-contractors have completed training over the Web.
The Future of Learning
In 2008, to systematically address workforce and training challenges, the INPO Future of Learning team partnered with IBM Workforce and Learning Solutions to conduct more than 65 one-on-one interviews, with chief executive officers, chief nuclear officers, senior vice presidents, plant managers, plant training managers and other leaders in the extended industry community. The team also completed 46 interviews with plant staff during a series of visits to three nuclear power plants. Lastly, the team developed and distributed a survey that was sent to training managers at the 65 nuclear plants, achieving a 62 percent response rate.
These are statements the team heard:
- “Need to standardize a lot of the training, deliver it remotely, preferably to a desktop, minimize the ‘You train in our classroom in our timeframe’ and have it delivered more autonomously so it’s likely more compatible with their lifestyles.”
- “We’re extremely inefficient today in how we design/develop and administer training. We don’t want to carry inefficiencies that we have today into the future.”
- “Right now, in all training programs, it’s a one-size-fits-all model that’s not customized to an individual’s background. Distance learning would enable this by allowing people to demonstrate knowledge and let some people move at a faster pace.”
- “We need to have ‘real’ e-learning. We’ve been exposed to less than adequate, older models of e-learning. We need to move away from ‘page turners’ and onto quality content.”
Several recommendations were generated as a result of the study. The first focused on ways to improve INPO’s current training offerings by adding leadership development courses, ratcheting up the interactivity of the Web-based and e-learning offerings in NANTeL and developing a “nuclear citizenship” course for new workers in the industry.
Second, there were recommendations about better utilizing training resources across the industry by centralizing common training, beginning with instructor training and certification and generic fundamentals courses. It was estimated that 50 percent of the accredited training materials are common across the industry. To accomplish this objective, INPO is exploring an industry infrastructure that would enable centralized training material development, maintenance and delivery.
The last set of recommendations focused on methods for better coordination and efficiency of training, including developing processes for certifying vendor training programs, and providing a jump-start to common community college and university curriculum.
In 2009, INPO is piloting a series of Future of Learning initiatives which will help determine the feasibility, cost-effectiveness, readiness and acceptance of this first set of recommendations. It is starting to look more broadly at ways it can utilize learning technology to drive economies of scale, accelerative and prescriptive learning, and deliver value to the nuclear electric generation industry.
Where Do We Go From Here ?
Beyond the initial perfect storm is another set of factors driving the future of learning.
First, consider the need for speed. It has been said that “If you are not learning at the speed of change, you are falling behind.”
In his “25 Lessons from Jack Welch,” the former CEO of General Electric said, “The desire, and the ability, of an organization to continuously learn from any source, anywhere – and to rapidly convert this learning into action – is its ultimate competitive advantage.” Giving individuals, teams and organizations the tools and technologies to accelerate and broaden their learning is an important part of the future of learning.
Second, consider the information explosion – the sheer volume of information available, the convenience of information access (due, in large part, to continuing developments in technology) and the diversity of information available. When there is too much information to digest, a person is unable to locate and make use of the information that one needs. When one is unable to process the sheer volume of information, overload occurs. The future of learning should enable the learner to sort through information and find knowledge.
Third, consider new developments in technology. Generations X and Y are considered “digital natives.” They expect that the most current technologies are available to them – including social networking, blogging, wikis, immersive learning and gaming – and to not have them is unthinkable.
Impact of New Technology
Philosophy of training has morphed from “just-in-case” (teach them everything and hope they will remember when they need it), to “just-in-time” (provide access to training just before the point of need), to “just-for-me.” With respect to the latter, learning is presented in a preferred media, with a learning path customized to reflect the student’s preferred learning style, and personalized to address the current and desired level of expertise within any given time constraint.
Imagine a scenario in which a maintenance technician at a nuclear plant has to replace a specialized valve – something she either hasn’t done for awhile, or hasn’t replaced before. In a Web 2.0 world, she should be able to run a query on her iPhone or similar handheld device and pull up the maintenance of that particular valve, access the maintenance records, view a video of the approved replacement procedure, or access an expert who could coach her through the process.
What needs to be in place to enable this vision of the future of learning? First, workers will need a device that can access the information by connecting over a secure wireless network inside the plant. Second, the learning has to be available in small chunks – learning nuggets or learning assets. Third, the learning needs to be assembled along the dimensions of learning style, desired and target level of expertise, time available and media type, among other factors. Finally, experts need to be identified, tagged to particular tasks and activities, and made accessible.
Fortunately, some of the same learning technology tools that will enable centralized maintenance and accelerated development will also facilitate personalized learning. When training is organized at a more granular level – the learning asset level – not only can it be leveraged over a variety of courses and courseware, it can also be re-assembled and ported to a variety of outputs such as lesson books, e-learning and m-learning (mobile-learning).
The example above pointed out another shift in our thinking about learning. Traditionally, our paradigm has been that learning occurs in a classroom, and when it occurs, it has taken the form of a course. In the example above, the learning takes place anywhere and anytime, moving from the formal classroom environment to an informal environment. Of course, just because learning is “informal” does not mean it is accidental, or that it occurs without preparation.
Some estimates claim 10 percent of our learning is achieved through formal channels, 20 percent from coaching, and 70 percent through informal means. Peter Henschel, former director of the Institute for Research on Learning, raised an important question: If nearly three-quarters of learning in corporations is informal, can we afford to leave it to chance?
There are still several open issues regarding informal learning:
- How do we evaluate the impact/effectiveness of informal learning? (Informal learning, but formal demonstration of competency/proficiency);
- How do we record one’s participation and skill-level progression in informal learning? (Information learning, but formal recording of learning completion);
- Who will create and maintain informal learning assets? (Informal learning, but formal maintenance and quality assurance of the learning content); and
- When does informal learning need a formal owner (in a full- or part-time role)? (Informal learning, but will need formal policies to help drive and manage).
- Movement in 3-D space. A virtual world could be useful in any learning situation involving movement, danger, tactics, or quick physical decisions, such as emergency response.
- Engendering Empathy. Participants experience scenarios from another person’s perspective. For example, the Future of Learning team is exploring ways to re-create the control room experience during the Three-Mile Island incident, to provide a cathartic experience for the next generation workforce so they can better appreciate the importance of safety and human performance factors.
- Rapid Prototyping and Co-Design. A virtual world is an inexpensive environment for quickly mocking up prototypes of tools or equipment.
- Role Playing. By conducting role plays in realistic settings, instructors and learners can take on various avatars and play those characters.
- Alternate Means of Online Interaction. Although users would likely not choose a virtual world as their primary online communication tool, it provides an alternative means of indicating presence and allowing interaction. Users can have conversations, share note cards, and give presentations. In some cases, SL might be ideal as a remote classroom or meeting place to engage across geographies and utility boundaries.
In the nuclear industry, accurate and up-to-date documentation is a necessity. As the nuclear industry moves toward more effective use of informal channels of learning, it will need to address these issues.
Immersive Learning (Or Virtual Worlds)
The final frontier for the future of learning is expansion into virtual worlds, also known as immersive learning. Although Second Life (SL) is the best known virtual world, there are also emerging competitors, including Active Worlds, Forterra (OLIVE), Qwag and Unisfair.
Created in 2003 by Linden Lab of San Francisco, SL is a three-dimensional, virtual world that allows users to buy “property,” create objects and buildings and interact with other users. Unlike a game with rules and goals, SL offers an open-ended platform where users can shape their own environment. In this world, avatars do many of the same things real people do: work, shop, go to school, socialize with friends and attend rock concerts.
From a pragmatic perspective, working in an immersive learning environment such as a virtual world provides several benefits that make it an effective alternative to real life:
Robert Amme, a physicist at the University of Denver, has another laboratory in SL. Funded by a grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, his team is building a virtual nuclear reactor to help train the next generation of environmental engineers on how to deal with nuclear waste (see Figure 1). The INPO Future of Learning team is exploring ways to leverage this type of learning asset as part of the nuclear citizenship initiative.
There is no doubt that nuclear power generation is once again on an upswing, but critical to its revival and longevity will be the manner in which we prepare the current and next generation of workers to become outstanding stewards of a safe, effective, clean-energy future.