Full Speed Ahead: Go Fast, Train Less?

In 2017, just after 5 o’clock in the morning on the 21st of August, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with the merchant vessel Alnic MC.  Berthing areas were immediately flooded and a total of 10 sailors lost their lives. Two months earlier, the USS Fitzgerald was struck by the merchant vessel Crystal at approximately 1:30 in the morning. Again, several sailors sleeping or working below decks were imperiled. This time, the toll turned out to be seven dead and three injured.

Although you aren’t sailing ships through crowded sea lanes, the lessons learned from these two fatal incidents are relevant to commercial contractors. Poor training, understaffing, and overworked crews contribute to the challenges you face every day.  In an effort to be more streamlined, to rely more on technology, and “do more with less,” sailors were put at risk. Sound familiar?

Let’s start with workload. In a twist of words we could only expect from the government, we read that “optimal manning” considers a 70-hour week to be the standard.  It should be noted that “optimal” sounded better than the original “minimal” manning. This was deemed the lowest staffing level possible to make a ship work. Great idea. However, what happened when someone fell ill, was in training, wasn’t proficient, or was otherwise not available? A classic case of theory versus reality, where what was intended isn’t really what was gained. Think about your staffing. I know it’s lean. Smaller and smaller crews try to do more with less.  There is an unfortunate tendency to dodge training in favor of project work that seems more critical at the time.  It’s a downward spiral that manifests in lower safety and productivity.

Construction unemployment is at the lowest level it has been in ten years. It is hard to find people. From an overworked estimating department to project teams that are at the outer edge of capacity, it is a recipe for failure. You tell yourself that the turnover you are having has nothing to do with staffing, but the employees who are leaving tell us differently. The government accounting office (GAO) reports the Navy is having a hard time finding people. The Navy agrees. So do you. But that doesn’t make the problem go away. There is no single solution.  A combination of recruiting and retaining strategies is required to add people.

Xbox and PlayStation are no substitute for real world training. For three decades prior to 2003, the U.S. Navy sent all of its new officers, whatever their commissioning source, to the Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) in Newport, Rhode Island. There, the officers underwent extensive simulator training featuring a variety of military vessels, and they worked through numerous courses that emphasized the practicalities of navigation and seamanship.

“But all that changed fifteen years ago,” says Capt. Kevin Eyer, a retired Navy skipper who served aboard seven cruisers and commanded three during his Navy career. “Instead of going through the rigorous training at SWOS for several months before reporting to their first ship, these young people went directly to the new ship with nothing more by way of training than a box of CDs the Navy termed CBT, or Computer-Based Training.”

CBT was not an especially popular replacement for SWOS. Often, it was humorously dismissed as “SWOS in a box” by the new officers who attempted to wade through its content—content which, according to its developers, would generate “higher professional satisfaction, increase the return on investment during the first division officer tour, and free up more career time downstream.”

“But what SWOS in a box really meant,” reveals Eyer, “was that the skipper of the ship that the new officer was assigned to was now expected to stand in for all the training that had once been provided by the school. And trust me—the skipper and everyone else on board already had plenty of other things to do.” Sounds like a field issue.

With the shuttering of SWOS in Newport, the Navy’s emphasis on training across the board began to falter and continues to do so. “We don’t let people fly airplanes without sending them off to a ground school to learn the basics,” says retired Navy Capt. Rich Hoffman. “Why are we assigning our sailors to ships before they understand the fundamentals… Some of them apparently don’t even understand the importance of looking out the damn window!”

If the stakes weren’t so high, this would almost be comical. While the risks on your jobsite and in your office may be somewhat less than the unforgiving ocean, they do remain. And let’s not blame the new employee for the skills gap they bring to the job. Training our operational managers at all levels–from foreman to president–to be more effective leaders should be top priority. Training must include classroom and on-the-job application. And we must incorporate technology that will truly optimize our teams.

These challenges will persist. A weak economy might lessen the labor shortage, but the skills gap and the focus on project execution rather than team development will never go away. We know that the best firms in industry are finding ways to overcome these challenges. Daily efforts to create trust, pride, and camaraderie, are required.



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