It was great to meet so many friends and colleagues in Las Vegas last week for RETA’s annual conference. While all business is about personal relationships, most people recognize that the Ammonia Refrigeration industry is a uniquely tight-knit group. I’ve always been strong supporters of RETA because their focus is on the Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians – the actual ground troops that do the work!
The comradery of the process operators in our industry is second to none and it’s always good to get the opportunity to assemble in one place for a few days to discuss common issues. A common theme this year in our conversations was one that has been very prevalent for the last few years, but only seems to be getting worse: the operator shortage.
For nearly a decade now there just aren’t enough skilled operators to go around and that has only highlighted the need for quality training for the new people we’re drafting into the field. There have been third-party solutions for overall refrigeration training for years and these programs have value, but they must serve to augment quality in-house training, not replace it.
What a quality in-house training program looks like is a very complicated subject and one we may write about at some point, but what I’d like to talk about today is something related to that topic: the power imbalance between the new and the seasoned operator.
While driving to Arkansas for a client visit earlier this week I was listening to a book on tape: Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.” In a chapter on Airplane crashes he spoke of a very interesting statistic: The plain is more likely to crash when the Captain is flying than when the First Officer is flying. Isn’t that odd? Wouldn’t you expect the more seasoned, more experienced Captain to be safer than the comparatively less seasoned and experienced First Officer?
He also offered what many psychologists believe is the reason for this: The Captain is very likely to point out a mistake made by the First Officer because they are in an elevated position compared to them. It is much more difficult – psychologically speaking – for the junior officer to challenge the Captain! With so many experienced operators training new ones, couldn’t we also be affected by this sort of power imbalance?
So, here are a couple thoughts for those of you in the field to help us all avoid the problems caused by power imbalance:
If you are the more seasoned, experienced technician:
- Are you making yourself approachable?
- Are you actively soliciting input from your colleagues on your plan of action?
- Are you rewarding questions about your plan of action or punishing them?
- Are you considering questions about your plan as teaching moments rather than challenges to your “authority?”
If you are the less seasoned, experience technician:
- Are you speaking up if you have concerns or questions about the plan of action?
- Are you insisting that you are heard rather than just making sure you have said your piece?
- Are you posing your concerns or questions as opportunities for your colleagues to train you?
It’s the last bullet of each of those that I want to focus on briefly. Whether you are the questioner or the person answering the question, you need to look at these moments of confusion as teaching moments. Saying “That’s stupid” or “I wouldn’t do it that way,” is perceived as a challenge and isn’t likely to get a constructive response. Saying “Help me understand why you are doing it this way,” “Is there a reason not to do it this other way,” or “Let me explain why I’m doing it this way” starts a dialogue between people that can bring you both together.
By asking yourself the above questions, the experienced technician will soon come to understand that “teaching” someone often helps them clarify their thoughts and makes them understand their own actions better. The inexperienced technician will find that training isn’t just something that happens in a classroom – their day is full of learning opportunities.
Remember, we’re all in this together.