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Training for the World-Class Boiler Operator

April 15, 2008
Whether used to control thermal processes or power, steam-production facilities are critical to the success of commercial and industrial complexes, requiring skilled professionals for safe and efficient operation. In the coming years, however, industries requiring boiler operators are facing a serious shortfall.

Whether used to control thermal processes or power, steam-production facilities are critical to the success of commercial and industrial complexes, requiring skilled professionals for safe and efficient operation. In the coming years, however, industries requiring boiler operators are facing a serious shortfall.

Traditionally, the boiler-operation profession has been especially stable in North America, with employers expecting an average of 15 years of service from their employees.1 With deregulation-driven downsizing and the lack of major utility developments over the last 20 years, however, little thought has been given to workforce replenishment, as improved technology and the redesign of work practices have been counted on to compensate for the loss of retiring workers. The continuing lack of promotion of industrial careers in school curricula, coupled with the new workforce icon of "I.T." (information technology), has drastically reduced the attractiveness of boiler operation to young adults entering the world of work. Consequently, the average age within the boiler-operations workforce is estimated to be 52.2

According to a Carnegie Mellon study, 74 percent of all utility companies report that at least half of their workforce can retire by 2010.1 Meanwhile, the Canadian Electricity Association estimates that 52 percent of all power-system operators in Canada will retire within the next 10 years.

This article will discuss the importance of training to the recruitment and retention of boiler operators, current educational models, and the development of a new consumer-centric training solution involving input from all stakeholder groups.

What a Training Program Can Do

Training programs have been shown to reduce costs,3 increase profit, and improve productivity and reliability.4 Additionally, they have become one of the most important benefits organizations can offer to attract and retain talented employees.

Most importantly, training can significantly improve safety. In 1998, Weirton Steel Corp. implemented a comprehensive training program; by 2000, it had reduced recordable incidents by 63 percent.5 Another mill enjoyed similar results, reducing injuries by 25 percent over the first 24 months of its training program and by well over 65 percent by the end of the fifth year, all the while watching the severity of accidents fall by 60 percent.6

Improved safety affects the bottom line by lowering workers'-compensation costs, saving millions of dollars a year. Moreover, fewer injuries and accidents lowers insurance costs, as some insurance brokers offer reduced premiums to companies with training programs. Studies have shown that an increase in a firm's training expenditures of $680 per employee generates, on average, a 6-percentage-point improvement in total shareholder revenue the
following year.7

Current Educational Models

Currently, nine U.S. states, as well as more than 60 metropolitan areas encompassing more than 75 percent of all U.S. industrial and commercial boiler-operation capacity, have licensure requirements. In the United States, the largest third-party, not-for-profit certifying body is the National Institute for the Uniform Licensing of Power Engineers (NIULPE) (, which serves all 50 states and protectorates. More than 300 licenses for the certification of boiler-operating personnel exist in the United States.

Several nationally recognized and many locally supported programs at traditional U.S. colleges provide face-to-face and distance-based training for power engineers. The two-year associate-degree programs at the University of Cincinnati; Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D.; Centralia College in Centralia, Wash.; Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich.; and Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, have been widely recognized for their quality. The number of graduates turned out by these programs, however, is significantly below the number of workers needed to renew the aging workforce.

Of the approximately 1,250 colleges/technical colleges across North America not providing training for boiler operators, some lack the necessary physical infrastructure, while others lack the quality materials and creative initiative needed to adequately serve the needs of local workers, whose time commitments certainly are different than those of the traditional college student.

The distance technical-training market involves a clientele diverse in both its needs and its geographic locations. Be it a phone tutorial, an interactive learning activity, or online self-assessment support, a product developed for this market must be tailored to the customer's requirements. Learners identified a variety of supports necessary for their adoption of a distance learning program; the most critical was attainment of an academic certificate.8

Despite the availability of distance-based and face-to-face learning programs provided by colleges and vocational institutes, in the United States, most boiler-operator education is obtained on the job or through startup training offered by boiler manufacturers. This training emphasizes the hands-on, practical aspects of running boiler systems. Though useful at the point and time of delivery, it often is system-, plant-, and unit-specific.

In a national survey of utility-worker applicants,9 the following deficiencies were found: technical knowledge (56 percent of applicants), mathematical ability (54 percent), communication skills(54 percent), mechanical ability (46 percent), reasoning ability (46 percent), interpersonal skills (46 percent). Change, it appears, is in order.

A New Training Solution

Traditional learning materials are created using a product focus. Typically, they are prepared by "experts" presuming to know the consumer's educational needs and sold through intermediaries, such as human-resources departments. Through a consumer-centric process involving direct consultation and partnership with the end user, Power Engineering Training Systems (, a division of PanGlobal Training Systems Ltd., works with all stakeholder groups to create externally certified learning materials and educator-support technologies for the thermal-utilities and energy-
management industries.

The topic groupings within each subject area of Power Engineering's training materials can be used to meet the broad knowledge requirements of third-party certification systems or combined to address specific on-the-job training needs. Regardless of its ultimate use, all content goes through a rigorous
and ongoing validation and renewal process mandated by all stakeholder groups, including energy-industry representatives, educators, regulatory and certifying bodies, and learners at all levels of the profession.

With 76 percent of the U.S. colleges that offer postsecondary career and technical education providing it at a distance,10 Power Engineering offers a full-featured online learning-management system (LMS) to educators. Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Neb., partnered with industry stakeholders, Power Engineering, and NIULPE to provide a learning model combining face-to-face and online resources with standard, nationally recognized certification. High-quality standard materials were used with resources added by the instructor and learners. The result was exceptional scores on nationally mandated certification examinations.

The best learning materials are the ones developed with the needs of learners and educators equally in mind. For its usability to be maximized, courseware should have format options linked to both learning styles and delivery abilities. Delivery options, including face-to-face, Web-supplemented, Web-enhanced, Web hybrid, and fully online, should be supportive of each other11 and not require significant financial resources.

Highly mediated tools, such as the simulations found in computer-based training, are not as effective as low-technology, text-based interactive learning systems augmented, rather than supplanted, by media.12,13 Student retention of knowledge has been found to be much higher with text-based systems than with media-centric ones.12,13 Unless simulations mirror real-life systems to a large degree, their educational value has been found to be lacking in comparison with text-centric learning environments.

Educators delivering Power Engineering courseware online have educational tools equivalent to those available in the face-to-face program. Power Engineering provides text-based and online access to standard and custom versions of its certified learning materials either directly or through a number of educators. Its LMS efficiently delivers content-based knowledge in a learner-centric environment with media enhancement and a large body of externally validated learning assessments. The system is easy to use, provides effective security, and can be managed internally or externally. Examples are available on the American Boiler Manufacturers Association Website (


The future of industries employing boiler operators is fraught with technological and staffing challenges. These challenges can be met if a partnership model involving all stakeholder groups is adopted for the design, development, and delivery of learning materials that are educationally sound, operationally effective, and validated by knowledgeable third parties.


1) Kussman, S. (2005, November). Workforce aging and turnover in the U.S. electric utility industry: Challenges and opportunities. Paper presented at Electric Utility Consultants Inc. Conference, St. Louis, MO.

2) Krishnan, R. (2006, June). Easing the exodus. Power Engineering. Available at

3) The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors. (1997, Fall). School boiler maintenance programs: How safe are the children? Bulletin. Available at

4) Madan, R. (2002, April). The human side of efficiency: The value of training in plant systems optimization. Paper presented at Industrial Energy Technology Conference, Houston, TX.

5) Matysiak, J.F. (2001, May). The pursuit of zero accidents at Weirton. New Steel.

6) Dunbar, M.E. (2001, August). The ultimate motivation tool. New Steel.

7) Koehle, D.A.F. (2000, November). Investing in workforce training improves financial success. Training & Development. Available at

8) Designs on better distance learning. (2002, June). Training Strategies for Tomorrow, pp. 6-8.

9) Guzman, S. (2005, March). Workforce aging and turnover in the U.S. electric utility industry: Challenges and opportunities. Paper presented at Electric Utility Consultants Inc. Conference on Solutions to an Aging Workforce, St. Louis, MO.

10) Johnson, S.D., Benson, A.D., Duncan, J., Shinkareva, O.N., Taylor, G.D., & Treat, T. (2004). Internet-based learning in postsecondary career and technical education. Journal of Vocational Education Research, 29, 101-119. Available at

11) Mullinix, B.B., & McCurry, D. (2003, September/October). Balancing the learning equation: Exploring effective mixtures of technology, teaching, and learning. The Technology Source. Available at

12) Feenberg, A. Distance learning: Promise or threat? Available at

13) Werry, C. (2001). The work of education in the age of e-college. First Monday. Available at

About the Author

Bob Clarke, BSc, MBA, is the president and chief operating officer of Calgary, Alberta-based PanGlobal Training Systems Ltd. Over the last 27 years, he has held various research and educational positions. He can be contacted at [email protected].