Next Generation Training: Greybeards to Gray Matter

By Alan M Ross, CMRP, CRL, President of Electric Power Reliability Alliance

May 2021

The last thing anyone wants to read about is how we are losing tribal knowledge as the “Boomers” retire and “Millennials” take over. Right? We’ve all heard this refrain before. Please bear with me a bit as I address it in a different, and of course I believe unique way.

Legacy Knowledge Worth Losing

What if much of that tribal or legacy knowledge that so many of us greybeards have isn’t worth passing on in the first place? What if things have changed and are changing—so rapidly in our fields of reliability, especially in the domain of electrical power reliability, that much of that legacy knowledge is outdated? Or, even worse, what if it is flat out wrong? Would we want to make sure the next generation learned it?

Let’s consider a case in point. There is a well-known bathtub curve that has been considered the norm for decades. Electrical asset failures in the first year of life are at pretty significant risk. Once these assets get beyond year one, then they are pretty much good to go for another 20 to 50 years. That end-of-life figure averages around 38 years for power transformers for instance according to the largest insurers of power transformers in the world.

But lately the early failure rate of transformers has been increasing so much that the bathtub curve is no longer the same curve. We aren’t even really sure exactly what the early failure rate is but in a recent discussion with several major carriers, they reported an early failure rate of 10 years. That is significant. If we taught the next generation what the older generation thought was the norm, then the risk associated with transformer failures could be overlooked and testing, maintenance and life cycle management would be completely awry.

And it’s not just transformers. Breakers, motors and even cabling are all undergoing similar life cycle changes. What we have always accepted as legacy knowledge may be wrong. We have to adjust our thinking and consider what knowledge is timeless and enduring. That is the legacy knowledge we should pass on. If you are a boomer, take a moment to look at your own area of expertise and ask yourself this, “What changes to previously thought of as timeless truths have I seen since I began my career? Are they still true?” Now there may not be many, but you will be hard pressed to have none. If you are of that next generation professional, ask yourself a similar question. “What have I learned in my career that is different from what my predecessor considered the norm?”

My generation was the “challenge everything” generation. We challenged institutions. We challenged norms. We challenged leadership. Often it was a challenge based on ignorance and youth. There was a sense of betrayal during the Vietnam war that carried over into society, and especially younger society in an unhealthy way sometimes. In many cases we were willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater because we were so ticked off at the bathwater. Fortunately, we settled down. Well, most of us did anyway. Some of us bought Harleys.

The current generations of Millennials and Generation X’s and Y’s seem to have a similar sense of challenging the status quo and we should consider much of the challenge healthy. Rethinking what we always took for granted in many ways allows us to engage the next generation of electrical system professionals, making sure we don’t throw truth out just because we want to see change. Some of the most beneficial changes are taking place around careers and career development. It is no longer accepted that a four-year college degree is the only way to career fulfillment and success. Technical degrees, apprenticeship training and careers that emphasize technical proficiency are becoming more of a priority in education and in government. 

I had the pleasure not long ago to accompany a team from the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) to Washington D.C. to meet with members of congress and the White House in support of Career Technical Education (CTE) programs. The Perkins Act—named after Carl Perkins a longtime advocate of technical education—recently passed unanimously in the House of Representatives to fund CTE programs. That is correct. Unanimously! That speaks volumes about our commitment to technical education. It has great support in the Senate and from the President. President Trump signed it as soon as it reached his desk. Times, they are a changing. 

Google Brains

Another major change that will affect how we pass on legacy knowledge is the phenomenon of “googling”. “Siri, what time is it?” or “Alexa, turn on the alarm” or “Google, what is the meaning of life?” (OK, maybe that last one is farfetched, but you get the point.) The next generation, and especially the ones after that, will all be what I call “Google brains.” Why learn everything if Google or Wikipedia knows it all? It’s a scary development and one that will change learning in a major way. 

What does it mean for the SMRP member or for the electrical system reliability professional when access to massive—and growing—amounts of information are available on demand. The internet has changed everything about the way we access knowledge and not always for the better.  It means we had better rethink training and training programs. Searchable, videocentric training platforms will be the norm for training in the future. That is expensive and time consuming to produce. The old standard of training programs is changing and changing fast.

Covid has accelerated this phenomenon, shortening the impact of digital learning from a decade to a year. While this is true, I also believe there will be a return to some forms of hybrid training programs with a lot of digital, off-site training being combined with practical application on site.

But the days of spending 3 or 5 days sitting in a room for 8 hours while a trainer reads his slides…is over. And thank goodness. Death by PowerPoint was a painful thing to watch. One of the reasons is that live, classroom situations allow for more interaction and engagement between trainers and participants.

Conclusion

The important takeaway from these changes taking place in the knowledge revolution is that learning is changing, therefore teaching and training must change too. A good Training & Educational Development (TED) program must take into account the need for experiential learning and various learning styles to be successful at passing on the most valuable legacy knowledge. 

The value of technical career development is on the rise and we must meet the need with a different solution than we did when all boys took Shop Class and girls took Home Economics. We must change the notion that only a four-year college education is valuable and remove the stigma that technical schools are second choices for those not capable. Enticing more younger men and women into technical careers means preparing the way for them to succeed and prosper while adding value to the nation’s work force in meaningful ways.

Finally, let’s not wring our hands and wonder how we are going to survive the great boomer migration into retirement and instead focus on the great opportunity to impact the future by changing the way we prepare the next generation. Let’s embrace the new knowledge revolution and train for success. A successful future demands it. 

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