Generational training divide

By Catherine Watkins

In This Section

November 2016

  • As the older generation of workers retires, fats and oils processors are facing a generational training divide that’s as wide as the Grand Canyon.
  • Companies are pursuing different strategies for transferring knowledge from retirees to young employees.
  • These strategies include phased retirement, using process safety management programs as the source of training materials, outsourcing some training to equipment suppliers, and operator training simulators.

Meet Dave and Shaun. They both work in vegetable oil processing, although Dave will retire in 2017. After decades of hands-on experience, he has a visceral knowledge of the plant. He can taste the soap from the centrifuge and tell if the oil is being under- or over-treated with caustic. He can pick up a handful of seed and feel if it is too moist to process. He can hear that a seal on a pump is failing just by a change in the motor’s sound.

By contrast, Shaun is an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. He prefers to work on computers or other digital devices and would just as soon stay off the plant floor. Whereas Dave remained with one company for his entire career, Shaun expects to work for multiple employers during his lifetime. These two employees could not be any more different in their attitudes, outlooks, workplace habits, and learning styles.

Although Dave and Shaun are fictional, the challenge of transferring knowledge from retiring Baby Boomers like Dave to inexperienced millennials like Shaun is not—particularly in the United States. There, industry consolidation between 1980–2000 triggered the layoff of most of the then 20- to 40-year-old Generation X employees, leaving only the more-experienced 40–65-year-olds. Those older employees are now retiring, creating a challenge for industry.

US processors are employing a number of strategies to narrow the skills gap, many of which can be adapted for use in other areas of the world. These include phased retirement, using process safety management programs as the source of training materials, outsourcing some training to equipment suppliers, and virtual operator training simulators.

Phased retirement

Companies of differing sizes in many industries are exploring phased retirement as a means of transferring knowledge from retiring workers to younger employees. Broadly speaking, phased retirement includes a variety of employment arrangements that permit employees who are close to retirement age to continue working with a reduced workload and eventually transition from full-time work to full-time retirement.

Many such arrangements are informal owing to legal and compensation ramifications. They include job sharing; telecommuting; consulting/contracting; casual employment on an as-needed basis; sabbaticals; flex-time, part-time, or seasonal work; and reduced work days and weeks.

Important considerations when designing phased-retirement programs—whether formal or informal—include:

  • Identifying which employees have critical knowledge and so should be offered phased retirement;
  • Settling on the age at which employees become eligible;
  • Designing a specific plan for knowledge transfer, complete with benchmarks; and
  • Recognizing legal and compensation implications.

Process safety management programs

Many US-based processing companies are recognizing that one of their best sources of training materials for new employees is their process safety management (PSM) program materials, created to comply with OSHA standards. (OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the US agency charged with enforcing workers’ safety and health legislation.)

“Not all workers are involved in the PSM program,” says John Mulholland, general manager of N. Hunt Moore & Associates Inc. in Collierville, Tennessee, USA. “It is important to involve operators in the initial development and continue gathering their input over time to be sure the PSM program is up to date.”

The advantage of “using what you already have,” Mulholland notes, is that the PSM materials are based on an initial hazard study that delineates all potential risks as well as their consequences, potential frequency, and recommendations on how to avoid them.

Equipment suppliers step into the breach

“We all realize we have a problem,” says Ted Neuman, speaking about the demographic training gap. Neuman is director of service sales equipment for GEA North America in Northvale, New Jersey, USA.

“Today, many processors are moving away from using an internal maintenance group and are relying more on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to supply maintenance know-how,” he notes. The supplier–plant operations relationship currently is more of a partnership than in times past, he adds, especially in the area of training. “The time is gone when the supplier dropped the machine off at the door and walked away. Now, the focus is on the total cost of ownership, which includes the operation and maintenance of equipment.”

GEA and other OEMs “have done a lot in the past five years,” he says, to develop internal training programs to help address the issue of knowledge transfer. As technology has changed through facility automation, so too has the training. “At GEA, we conduct seminars as well as personal training, which is quite a change from what it used to be 15 years ago.”

High-tech virtual training comes of age

Two of the largest global vegetable oil processors—ADM and Cargill—are using virtual simulators for a variety of purposes that encompass both training and process optimization, according to Martin Berutti of MYNAH Technologies, LLC. MYNAH supplies dynamic process simulation to industry and is based in Chesterfield, Missouri, USA. Berutti is president and chief operating officer of the company and was involved with the development and implementation of both the ADM and Cargill projects.

It should be noted that the third member of the triad of large publicly traded processors, Bunge, may also be using virtual simulation, but that company’s representatives (as well as representatives of the privately held Louis Dreyfus Group) did not reply to requests from INFORM for comment.

High-fidelity dynamic real-time simulation replicates a plant’s process design and actual responses. When combined with a control system simulator, it mimics the look and feel of the online control system down to the graphics, alarms, and controls. In fact, the simulation is so precise that MYNAH warns clients to mark the simulator clearly so the control room operators do not confuse it for the actual control system.

Simulators can compress years of training into a much shorter period of time for new employees. Industry studies claim that it takes an average of seven years for plant operators to be competent in their role. The use of a dynamic simulator has proven to compress this learning curve to less than a year, according to Berutti. A simulator can also allow engineers to test potential changes to the facility’s control system for possible errors and to prove out correct responses without affecting the actual plant. “You can test anything you want in a simulated environment,” says Berutti, “because it has no impact on the actual, running plant. You don’t have to worry about environmental impact or safety.”

An added advantage to Cargill, which is using a MYNAH-supplied simulator in its North American corn wet milling locations, is that one simulator can be shared through the company’s cloud environment across multiple process units for both control system testing and operator training.

ADM is taking a different approach, says Berutti, by using simulators to train operators at new facilities in Latin America and China, as well as the company’s North American sites. The company’s leadership team runs the project and implements it from North America, while saving training time at greenfield projects elsewhere. And, like Cargill, ADM also uses virtual simulation for process optimization.

“Millennials are not technophobic,” Berutti adds. “In fact, they actively want to feel and define the world through a technological portal.” For that reason alone, using job shadowing or mentoring alone runs counter to the youngest working generation’s preferred learning style.

Consultant Cecil F. Shewchuk, author of a white paper on Workforce Enablement Technology (; PDF), explains that cost no longer needs to be a prohibitive factor for processors when adding Operator Training Simulators (OTS) to their training toolboxes. Shewchuk is the owner of Shewchuk Consulting in London, Ontario, Canada.

“There are two ways to lower the cost. First, by lowering the fidelity of the simulation. Second, by using a generic high-fidelity model of a standard plant. This won’t be exactly your plant, but new hires can still get hands-on training. It is the customization that costs.”

That said, Shewchuk notes that OTS is most effective when it replicates the exact plant control system.

Another cost-effective strategy he has used for clients is to combine OTS training with teaching by newly retired staff members serving as mentors. Common operational scenarios can be built into the simulator along with a grading mechanism—both of which can be guided by the mentors. A new hire’s performance on the training modules can be graded, logged, saved, and replayed to show the trainee where he or she went wrong (or right, for that matter). This record can be stored permanently to show that plant management performed the proper training, should liability issues ever arise.

The cost of developing simulators varies widely depending on the complexity. However, the rule of thumb—according to Martin Berutti—is to budget approximately 10% of a facility’s automation budget for simulator development. On the other hand, Shewchuk suggests another strategy for the vegetable oil processing industry: to develop a library of OTS templates at the unit-operation level for roughly $10,000–$20,000 per simulation. The library could then be made available via the cloud on a subscription basis.

The use of virtual simulators in vegetable oil and food processing clearly is the way of the future, and not just for the largest processors. Although some processors contacted for this article—such as CHS of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, USA—made it clear they are not considering investing in simulators, others such as J.G. Boswell Co. in Corcoran, California, USA, are interested.

“Long term, we want to look at virtual training,” says Mark Cartwright, oil mill manager of J.G. Boswell’s vegetable oil processing plant. “We are also looking to automate much of our safety training. [But] the biggest problem so far with the [younger] workforce is a matter of expectations and commitment. They don’t expect to work as many hours or work at the same intensity as previous generations.”

It is this fact that may, in the end, prove to be a larger problem for processors than the transfer of knowledge from retirees to new hires. Unless, that is, someone invents a virtual training simulator that can improve an employee’s work ethic.

Catherine Watkins is a freelance writer based in Champaign, Illinois, USA. She can be reached at


Skills certification programs and other resources
A further challenge for the US vegetable oil processing industry is the difference in the skills required on the job and the actual skills possessed by prospective employees.

This “skills gap” is real and growing. According to The Skills Gap in US Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond, a report produced by the Manufacturing Institute (MI; Washington, DC, USA;, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs likely will need to be filled over the next decade. The skills gap will result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled, MI says. (The MI is a not-for-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers [NAM; Washington, CD, USA;])

A number of US manufacturers are handling this challenge via skills certification programs endorsed by NAM. Based on third-party assessments, such certifications use standards set by industry. For an overview of skills certification systems as well as other helpful resources, see “Developing Skilled Workers: A Toolkit for Manufacturers on Recruiting and Training a Quality Workforce” (; PDF).

Among the MI/NAM certification partners are:

  • ACT®—The ACT National Career Readiness Certificate™ is based on an individual’s performance on three WorkKeys® skills assessments: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information. Scores on these assessments determine the certificate level—bronze, silver, gold, or platinum—an individual can earn. See for more information.
  • Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC)—The MSSC assessment and certification system focuses on the core skills needed by front-line production workers. MSSC is accredited by the American National Standards Institute under ISO Standard 17024. Visit for details.
  • Manufacturing Skills Institute (MSI)—MSI Manufacturing Technician 1 certification covers competence in math and measurement, spatial reasoning and manufacturing technology, and business acumen and quality.

Other online resources include:

  • Tools for employer–education partnerships—Investigate handbooks, templates, issue briefs, and research for educators and employers on training and advancing workers. See for more information.
  • Information on creating an apprenticeship program—The US Department of Labor's toolkit and other resources that support starting and expanding apprenticeship programs may be found at

Some processors use temporary help agencies and internships to help vet prospective employees and to avoid paying unemployment benefits if the workers are not a good fit. “At certain times, that has helped us identify higher-quality employees,” says Mark Cartwright, oil mill manager with J.G. Boswell Co. in Corcoran, California, USA. The company also collaborates with the agricultural engineering department at California Polytechnic State University in nearby San Luis Obispo to identify and place summer interns.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM; Chicago, Illinois, USA) pursues another strategy for closing the skills gap by supporting various STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning initiatives globally. ADM provides support through its ADM Cares program, which directs “up to 1% of ADM’s pretax profits to initiatives and organizations around the world that drive meaningful social, economic and environmental progress,” according to the company’s website.