EfW industry needs to invest in training next generation of plant operators 3/3

Experienced EfW engineer and consultant Roberto Vogel voices concerns over training the next generation of energy-from-waste plant operators and investigates how the sector can modernise. Part three of three

An EfW plant's grabber An EfW plant's grabber

About the author

Roberto Vogel is the founder and director of Vogel Waste Industry Services trading as of ENPRO SWISS, former chief commissioning engineer for Von Roll Inova (now HZI), founder and technical director of KRR ProStream (now retired) and EWB editorial panel member

6. The recruiter’s perspective: MC Technical Recruitment

MC Technical Recruitment is a small technical recruitment company specialised in EfW and Anaerobic Digestion (AD). The author spoke to Matt George, director of MC Technical about his views on the issue of training and competence in the EfW industry.

Matt believes that there are skills shortages in the field of EfW operators and managers. Among the reasons he cites Brexit, an ageing workforce, and the fact that the job of an engineer in an EfW plant is not attractive to many young people in the UK. The main solution to this problem from his perspective is to look for engineers with transferable skills, and then to match those skills as close as possible to the job requirements.

At MC Technical this is done using the following pillars of wisdom:

  • All consultants are extensively trained in the company processes and asked to research and report on the processes involved to gain knowledge and understanding of fields candidates work in

  • Consultants are introduced to the work sites (in person – meaning smells, noises, PPE wearing) for which they provide recruitment advice (for example, EfW plants, AD Plants)

  • By striking up a relationship with the job seekers and understanding their needs

  • And finally, from the knowledge gained from candidates and employers to find a close match to employer job offers

Matt also says that technical training and competence of a candidate has equal weight to their interpersonal skills; it is crucial the new worker fits into the prospective team.

In Matt’s experience employers must weigh up the salary they are prepared to pay against the level of competence. A highly qualified/skilled candidate will be on a higher pay grade. However, H&S and Environmental Competence skills are often mentioned in these discussions (Wamitab, NEBOSH)

Many of his employer customers mention staff shortages and high staff turnover as important issues. Interestingly Matt correlates these as being part of a vicious circle: Staff shortages can lead to high turnover, which in turn results in staff shortages. His (slightly controversial) advice to clients in this situation is:

  • Hold training programs for existing staff

  • Overmanning – For example instead of 5 full shifts, create 5.5 shifts. This allows breathing space in case of staff absence, training leave, etc. and improves staff morale. This can be cost neutral if account is taken of overtime payments.

  • Increase wages for key personnel (a modest salary increase is potentially more cost effective than a new-recruitment, retraining, etc.)

7. Boiler fundamentals one-day course

Before the course it is important for students to have some site experience, so the theory that is provided in the classroom can be put into a practical context. The boiler fundamental course is aimed at newcomers to the EfW industry, giving them the foundations on which to base further, more specific training. To start with the students are asked to voice their expectation from this day-course, which is reviewed at the end.

The course introduces and puts into context the concepts of energy, work, and power. It goes on to explain in simple terms the three types of heat transfer and how these matter in EfW daily operations. It touches on thermal expansion in the boiler context, moving on to boiler functionality, steam/water cycle and boiler architecture. The last theme before the lunch break and practical demonstrations is the ash transport.

The demos used are of different energy and steam models, bringing the content of the course to life in a playful manner that assists with the learning process. Other practical objects on show are failed boiler tubes and samples of different boiler fouling deposits.

The afternoon session covers Flue Gas Treatment (FGT) temperature profiles along the boiler/glue gas ducting, boiler fouling and means of boiler fouling control, and where they are installed/used, and the principles of flue gas transport through the boiler and associated pressure drop.

After a short review of subjects covered and clarification there is a 12-point multiple choice test to ensure the main learning objectives have been achieved. The day is closed out with reviewing the test and any clarifications arising from this followed by revisiting the initially set objectives.

In the case of KRR ProStream the course was aimed at the specific needs of the boiler cleaning operators, coming onto the plant to carry out on-load boiler cleaning. The concept of this can be transferred to cater for other needs, such as new shift operators or maintenance staff coming from different industries. It can also be adapted to specific boiler plants and other aspects of EfW operations, such as FGT, residuals transport and storage, etc.

8. Conclusions and recommendations

Conclusions

In this article we have seen that many things can and do go wrong in EfW plants due to their complexity and the variability of feedstock. To put the quality of operations into context I have looked at the Tolvik UK Energy from Waste Statistics 2020 for average availability of UK EfW plants. Availability is a common yardstick for the quality of operations; for 2020 this figure was 89.2%. I compare this to a self-selecting sample of European plants, 257 process lines, using figures from a Prewin presentation for 2019. The figure is 89.5%, which means UK plants’ quality of operation is in line with the European experience.

However, if we assume an ideal availability of 94.2%, corresponding to 21 days of planned shutdown and no unplanned shutdown, there is room for improvement, especially for the more ambitious operators. As the case studies show, in all these cases unplanned shutdown was a consequence, or a at least a risk, of poor training and incompetence and therefore avoidable.

A second consequence is repair costs and reduced production, when shutdown can be averted. This can be measured in percentage of headline capacity. In this category I would also like to count the environmental cost of poor operating quality, causing higher emissions and diversion to landfill.

Another positive outcome is the reduction of work-related stress. Relevant training and competence can avoid errors happening even where a shutdown can be averted through reactive measures. This doesn’t show up in availability or pure mechanical efficiency measures but may have a corrosive effect on work morale and job satisfaction and in turn lead to high staff turnover. This in turn has a negative impact on stress and HR costs.

The situation as it stands in the UK at this moment favours the big operators who have enough resources to provide in-house solutions to the training and competence problem. However, these operators are recruiting in the same pool of talent and cannot exist in splendid isolation. The case studies presented in Section 3 also affect them, for example if a poorly trained operator is recruited and brought into their plant. My recommendations are mainly aimed at the smaller operators. However, the approach of providing targeted in-house mini-training packages will also benefit individual plants from large operating organisations, such as Viridor or Veolia.

In Section five the case study of KRR shows that small companies can implement tailor-made training solutions in-house for their staff. This produces benefits beyond improved profitability; stress reduction and job satisfaction for operators (leading to better staff retention) and client satisfaction are but two additional aspects.

The Boiler Fundamentals Course can serve as a template for a short, targeted course for operators (Section 7).

Recommendations for operators and contractors

  • Every individual plant should review their training programs, perhaps by asking operators in an anonymous questionnaire how competent they feel they are in their job and what training they think would help them do that job better.

  • An in-house training budget should be agreed for the closing of skills gaps.

  • To target training objectives operators should use existing analysis of breakdowns, indicating which processes would most benefit from the budgeted resources.

  • Devise a system to address the gaps discovered in a realistic and practical training program that is specific to the plant. Identify potential champions that can act as mentors, facilitating self-learn programs.

  • It is helpful to separate the training into three distinctive groups (all underpinning knowledge):

  • Underpinning Knowledge short course training that can be readily provided in-house with the help of in-house mentors, to fill skills gaps in the short term.

  • Underpinning Knowledge longer term training to be developed in-house, aimed at improving the overall skills basis of operators.

  • Refresher courses for new-comers to the plant using existing contractor training packages. Alternatively, contractors may provide this refresher training.

  • Any training program should include plant identification elements to ensure every operator is familiar with the location of equipment. Process & Instrumentation Diagrams (P&ID) are a very useful tool to allow mentor and learner to organise and structure the learning process.

  • This training program can take many forms and should include feedback loops so that mentor and mentee can measure progress. One possible test question is the hypothetical tossing of a coin into the boiler or ash transport system and asking the mentee to trace its passage in the process, using the P&ID – where will it emerge?

  • Create an in-house training skills matrix and provide successful trainees with a certificate

General recommendations

  • The UK needs a good, generally accessible forum for people working on EfW plants. The series of workshops led by Uniper Academy are a very good starting point

  • With Uniper Academy about to close, other providers of Higher Technical Education need to develop tailor made courses for EfW and EfB operators.

  • Perhaps the UK EfW community would benefit from the experience of the Swiss VBSA and implement universally accessible training and certification schemes, tailor made for the EfW industry.

  • It is recommended that managers and admin personnel be also given an introduction to EfW.

  • Recruiters can help to close skills gaps by assessing candidates’ training gap needs at this early stage

About the author

Roberto Vogel is the founder and director of Vogel Waste Industry Services trading as of ENPRO SWISS, former chief commissioning engineer for Von Roll Inova (now HZI), founder and technical director of KRR ProStream (now retired) and EWB editorial panel member

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