What’s it like to be a young engineer given responsibility for parts of a multi-million-dollar plant full of potentially hazardous fluids linked together by pipe, fittings and valves that, for a newcomer, are shrouded in a semi-transparent veil of mystery? The answer is a combination of self-confidence, fear and a strong desire to succeed, all bound together with a thousand questions.
Having taught valve training courses for more than 10 years, I have seen and heard all the varied stories these up and coming young men and women have. These mostly millennial engineers and technicians are now the professionals running our plants as the working life of their greying superiors approaches an end. Virtually all the newbies come from engineering or technical school with just enough valve knowledge to be a little confused and the potential to make a wrong decision when it comes to valve issues.
WHERE TRAINING’S BEEN SOURCED
Most large oil and chemical companies provide some valve training for new hires. Often this consists of shadowing an experienced hand or working for a short while as an assistant, which hopefully means learning by osmosis and some well-placed questions. Some larger companies have a valve manual or a set of valve selection documents to learn from or to reference. These two channels have been the crash course that on-the-job-training for valves has become.
It wasn’t always this way, especially for some of the major refiners and chemical producers. In decades past, Humble (later Exxon) used to provide a well-rounded training regimen for its new engineers. When a new engineer was hired, he or she spent a short period becoming quickly acclimated to plant life and its surroundings. The young prodigy-to-be then was assigned to the procurement department’s inspection group for a hands-on course in plant equipment, including valves. The new hires served a period of months as source inspectors for new equipment, which involved reviewing purchase orders and specifications and comparing those against the finished products ready for shipment to the refinery.
As for the valve aspect of this training, there were meetings with vendors to review documents and lots of time spent witnessing assembly and testing of specially engineered or critical valves. Along with this technical inspection training came collateral experience gained in how to deal with a variety of problems and a multitude of personality types.
Following the source inspection training, a new, semi-trained engineer was assigned to a specific unit in the plant. He or she would become familiar with all the fixed and rotating equipment found in the unit while also applying the practical hands-on inspection experience they gained. The not-quite-green-anymore engineer then rotated throughout the plant with stints in many of the other units. After all this training, a much-more-confident engineer or technician was now ready to be placed into a position of responsibility within the company. This whole process from hire to final placement could last two to three years, depending upon the specific needs of the plant.
Today, this process has been homogenized down to a matter of months from new hires to positions of importance. While billions of bytes of digital information are available to the young engineer through their office computer or smartphone, the aspect of having seen it in person and hands-on experience is lacking.
TODAY’S YOUNG ENGINEERS
As part of the VMA’s ValveEd training team, I have been privileged to participate in training events for several end users at their facilities. The audience in all cases was predominately young engineers along with some mechanical technicians. In this small group (usually 20-25 people) environment, the fear of dumb questions is reduced and questions are more focused on individual process applications and questions. Although onsite teaching locations are limited to the samples carried in by instructors, the presence of some form of hands-on training helps to reinforce the two-dimensional aspect of the visuals on a screen.
The questions uttered in these small groups can be a bit shocking to some of our presenters who have decades of experience under their belt. But these basic questions reveal the need for continuing valve education such as that offered by VMA.
This past January, my company hosted 54 young ExxonMobil engineers for two, one-day valve and valve repair basics courses. As we went around the room, participants introduced themselves and stated how long they had been working at their job. On the first day, the first row of that class averaged just over one year’s job experience. For the total course, the average experience was about four years. (That four-year number was skewed a little by two veterans with 18 and 20 years who attended the class).
What we discovered was that all the attendees had a pocketful of valve-related questions, which in some cases were answered by the hands-on training they received that day.
A follow-up email survey asking about valve issues they faced in their day-to-day duties revealed a need for additional specific valve application training along with some “valves 201” (advanced and application-specific issues) curriculum. These will serve as program topics for future ValveEd training courses. Also recognized by those planning future basics courses was a need for a condensed valve basics course that could be offered in engineering schools.
WHAT KNOWLEDGE DO THEY NEED/WANT?
With today’s strong focus on the environment, as well as much internal corporate pressure to control fugitive emissions (FE), it should come as no surprise that FE is a topic on the minds of respondents. A popular request among those queried was for training in the proper method of repacking valves with fugitive emissions packing.
An interesting general request also came from the need to readily review the internal design of the various valve types and how they function. Amazingly enough, the request was for some form of a large-sized poster showing the cut-away views of the basic valve types. It seems that even for millennials, a bit of colored ink on a large sheet of coated paper can sometimes be more useful than an eight-square-inch view on a smartphone or a larger one on a computer display.
An analysis of other comments shows a need for experienced sales engineers to make calls on these engineers. Although the “hi, have a donut, how are you doing” approach to sales may elicit a response and the memory of a name, these young engineers could benefit tremendously from interfacing with technically savvy valve sales engineers who can answer their application and “valves 201”-type questions. Even though reaching this group of plant personnel is challenging, it’s clear that persistence in doing so would be worth the effort.
The biggest take-away from the hands-on training course we had was the effectiveness of the hands-on portion of the training. Although in this case “hands-on” is more of an “eyes-on” exercise, the ability to move around and view the components from all angles elevates some of the concepts from the visualization to reality stage. It also shows how effective a more-advanced hands-on valve and actuator assembly and disassembly program could be. Practical experience has shown many of us that during valve outages and turnarounds, when an engineer breaks away from the plant to see and touch a critical valve, the level of understanding increases tremendously.
Any one- or two-day valve basics courses may bring up as many questions among those in attendance as it answers, but that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as new questions are addressed and answered. As I referenced in a previous VALVE Magazine (Summer 2017), “The Road to Valve Knowledge,” valve expertise is not a destination but a career-long journey. As valve trainers, we need to be good listeners and provide training that makes the learning journey more productive and hopefully more enjoyable for these engineers.