Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was a young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and I to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.

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19 responses

  1. I learned my lesson!

  2. that was a great class! thoroughly enjoyed it! I think we even had Charles as well some! and I had one with Harry and it was great , loved Harry.

  3. Great story! You’ve always been an innovator. It makes sense that you would be as a trainer too. I did attend a few switching schools. They were booooooooooooring!

  4. not only did you improve training to make it more interesting, you have applied the same to this blog, it’s one of the best stories I’ve read complete with graphics. Definitely an excellent archive.

    1. Thanks Metro for your kind comment.

  5. This is a wonderful article…Who would not love to learn from a cutest presenter? Great job !!

  6. Enjoyed every word and the cutest of teachers photo:) He truly has blessed you with wisdom, creativity and discernment! blessings, denise

    1. Thank you Denise and may God bless you with every attribute that you admire in others!

  7. Pure genius! Your daughter is/was precious. I’m stealing your training tactics. (On a side note. I once had to teach a group of ‘higher-ups’ how to do block printing. 😖 LOL!)

    Enjoyed your post, immensely!

  8. What a great approach!

  9. Just shows a good teacher can teach anything and make it interesting (or at least less dull!)

  10. Hi Plant Electrician, just thought I’ll swing by your blog after you checked out mine! Thanks =) your daughter looks adorable in the lab coat. Every kids dream to look like a super smart scientist.

  11. You’re a true Renaissance Man with practical and verbal skills, innovative smarts (imagination and logic in tandem), aesthetic sensibilities and a keen sense of fun! Even though my background is very different, your posts are always a great read.

  12. With the shift I work, i understand this.

  13. Love your stories, as an Operating Engineer, many of them sound very familiar. I don’t work at a power plant but work inside building power plants.

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