Tuesday, June 23 – PIPELINERS PODCAST – EPISODE 133 – COLEMAN STERLING AND JAMES CROSS sponsored by Energy Worldnet
This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features Coleman Sterling and James Cross of Energy Worldnet (EWN) discussing how the culture is changing in the pipeline industry and the subsequent impact on training.
In this episode, you will learn about the evolution of pipeline industry training, achieving efficiencies in training, matching up training with the emotional intelligence of professionals, and the importance of being conceptual in the pipeline industry. You will also learn about the soft skills you need early in your pipeliner career versus the soft skills you need later in your career.
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 133, sponsored by Energy Worldnet, a worldwide service provider to the oil and gas industry, making the world safer by providing pipeline operators and contractors innovative solutions for operator qualification, safety training, content authoring, and guidance as pipelines operate in compliance with PHMSA, OSHA, and other regulatory requirements. To learn more about Energy Worldnet, visit energyworldnet.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.
Announcer: Now, your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Micah Gray with Enterprise Products. Congratulations, Micah, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around ‘til the end of the episode.
This week, Coleman Sterling and James Cross of Energy Worldnet join us to talk about the changing culture in the pipeline industry and the impact that’s having on training. Coleman, James, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Coleman Sterling: Thanks. Glad to be here.
James Cross: Absolutely.
Russel: Let’s start. I want you guys to do some brief introductions so the listeners can know a little bit about your background and how you got into pipelining. Coleman, could I ask you to go first?
Coleman: Sure. My name, Coleman Sterling. I got into pipelining through my family’s company, Energy Worldnet. I talk to guys all the time that have 30, 40 years of pipelining experience. I have 19 years of pipeline compliance and training experience. My experience comes from the training side and the safety side. That’s how I got into it.
Russel: James, same question.
James: You bet. Thanks, Russel. My journey started a long time ago. I was born and raised in West Texas in the Permian Basin. My family and friends have been in the oil and gas industry my whole life, but I took a different path. I saw the ups and downs of the E&P side of the business, which honestly made me a little social distant, I guess.
James: I found myself getting involved in technology early on, and after about 15 years on that side of things, I actually chased my heart, my passion and found my way to EWN where really I worked side by side with Coleman and others to shape the culture internally and our brand.
Our company is focused on training and development, and we push that initiative hard here in this organization. Kind of full circle.
Russel: Yeah, eat your own dog food kind of thing.
James: Absolutely. Here I am back in the industry I grew up surrounded by.
Russel: I’m kind of with you about the whole upstream thing. Given what’s going on in that market as we record this episode here in early May… [laughs]
James: Yes, sir.
Russel: I think this is my fourth crash since I’ve been in oil and gas. You just learn how to ride that like a surfer. I’m going to paddle out, I’m going to catch a wave…
I asked you guys to come on and talk about what’s going on in the industry, in pipelining, around demand for training, and what’s going on around generational change in terms of training. Let me start with this question. What do you think the nature of training demand is just generally in the pipeline business?
Coleman: I can go ahead and jump on this one if you want. The demand for training throughout the pipeline industry, it’s increasing. People want more training. They want more engaging training. They want the knowledge. We’re seeing a lot of the individuals that we work with, they desire it.
It’s changing how companies look at training and what kind of resources they put towards it. Especially in most recent situations with everyone being remote, how do we deliver the training? How do we deliver it in a remote fashion? How do we make sure the knowledge is delivered and it keeps people safe and keeps them on the job site?
We see companies looking into, how can I continue to deliver high-level training while still satisfying the needs and the desires of what the new generations are looking for and what it means to get training for your job?
Really that’s some of the main things that I’ve been seeing recently in some of the companies. They’re really focusing on how they can deliver it and create efficiencies while doing it.
Russel: I want to talk a little about history. I graduated university in 1980. My freshman year in university was the first time that freshmen in engineering didn’t have to take fundamentals of slide rule. People started using handheld calculators. This is 1976.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in training. At that time, all training was classroom. Then you started seeing a lot of things, in the ’80s in particular, around computer-based training. Now we’re starting to talk about VR and AR and all of that.
What I would say is it’s interesting. I did a podcast on this quite a while back with Ardis Bartle. She had written a paper about measurement training and a study done in the Navy where they actually started to see drops in operational capability because of an over-reliance on computer-based training.
One of the things, whenever you have a training conversation, is you have to talk about the purpose of trainings to build competency. There’s a competition between what’s really required to build competency versus what the companies or the operators can justify or afford and such.
That’s kind of a tee up. You mentioned efficiency. I guess what I want to ask is, what does efficiency look like when it comes to training?
Coleman: What we’ve seen, and I agree with you, some of the studies that they have done, companies, they became a bit too reliant on the computer-based model. That hit pretty heavily in my company when we began in 1994. Along with some of the rules that came out, we had computer-based training.
A lot of the companies, the needle swung all the way over to computer-based training. The reliance on that, it started to develop. People were just teaching to the test. Pass a test. Then get back out to the job site. We’ll show you how it’s really done.
Fast forward to today. The efficiency of computer-based training or virtual reality or remote training is still required because instructor-led training…Let me backup. Because instructor-led training is the cost-prohibitive to do all your training in instructor-led, so what we do and what we’ve spoken about a lot is a blended model, blended training model.
You’ve got to ensure that your knowledge is transferred. You’ve got to ensure that people are learning proper processes and the safe way to do things, while at the same time ensuring your training program is actually effective.
What we found is a blend of instructor-led training with some computer-based training with some virtual reality with some remote training with some micro training, it’s a blended model these days. You have to be able to cover everyone’s learning styles, their habits, and different types of information that you’re trying to get across.
Russel: Certainly, in my experience, I’d say that’s the most effective. Everybody learns differently. A blended model that’s engaging them around building a competency in various mechanisms is going to be most effective overall. Do you ever think we’ll get away from instructor-led?
Coleman: No, we won’t. I don’t believe so. You always have to have that face to face human interaction training. You’ve got to be able to see if the learner is not getting it. There’s certain things that you can miss in a full computer-based model.
The job that we have is face to face. You are down there working with your teammates, with your crew members. I don’t believe that we’ll ever get away from instructor-led, instructor based training.
Russel: What about hands-on, real-world, doing it for real training?
Coleman: That’s a tough question to answer. Now that we’re getting into the virtual reality world, there’s questions that are being asked. Can we teach and train and can we evaluate people from a virtual side?
Really, the answer is “Well, kind of.” It depends on the job that you’re doing. If you have people out that have to pick up heavy tools, and have to apply the use of those tools, and you have to feel pressures and stuff, it’s hard to simulate that in a virtual world.
However, there’s other inspection criteria, there’s painting, there’s fire extinguisher, there’s other things that you can do, that you can teach and train, and evaluate in a virtual world. It itself the virtual world is going to be a blended model as well.
Russel: I think that’s right, the thing. One of our businesses is in the measurement training domain. There is a big distinction between understanding what you need to do to open up a meter run and inspect it, all of that, versus going out and blowing down a 1,200 PSI line.
[laughs] Cracking that relief the first time as a…That’s an experience that has an emotional impact. That’s what we used to call in the military a significant emotional event.
Coleman: That’s correct. You got to hear it. You got to feel it. You got to feel that initial fear of it sometimes.
Russel: That’s exactly right. A lot of people talk about millennials. The next generation behind the millennials are beginning to come into the pipeline business. What’s going on with the new people coming into the business versus the older people that are in the business? How is generational change impacting this whole conversation around training?
James: Russel, I think it’s easy for us to throw a blanket over some of the younger generations and say, “They’re technology-driven. That’s how they’re going to learn and train.” Honestly, what we’re finding is they’re still learning styles embedded in everyone, and they still need that blended model.
Yes, they’re more prone, they have TikTok, they have Snapchat, they have all those things, but they’re not using them to train. I think what we’re finding is we’ve got to go back to those learning styles and start there and then, build on it with the generations.
You’re right. You mentioned it earlier. We’re in a totally unique environment where we have four generations of people in the workforce at the same time. We have Gen Z, the new generation. They’re still being born, and they’re picking up shovels. I think that’s something we have to consider. They’re technology-minded, but at the same time, it still boils down to those learning styles.
Russel: What are the learning styles? Are those learning styles consistent across the generations?
James: They are… you would ask me that question. I’ll try real hard to remember all of them. Obviously, you have your hands on. Like we mentioned before, you got folks that are visual learners. Then, you have audiovisual. Then, when you introduce things like technology, it adds another wrinkle in there as well. Am I missing one, Coleman?
Coleman: No. For the most part, you get to see it, feel it, touch it or see it, feel it, hear it.
James: Some people need the manual in front of them.
Russel: Yeah. For myself, I’m a very pictorial learner. I learned by seeing it, seeing. I don’t learn by hearing it. I’m not a very good auditory learner.
James: I was the kid that torn things apart and put them back together, so…
Russel: I was that guy, too. [laughs]
James: Hands-on for sure, for me all day long.
Russel: I think, to explore that distinction a little bit. In the ’70s when I was in high school myself, and many of my friends, we tore cars apart in our front yards and put them back together. Then, ran them on the weekend and then, torn them apart, put them back together again.
Russel: Then, when I got out of the military in the mid-’80s, I had computers and I tore them apart, put it back together. [laughs] A lot of people of our generation have that mechanical hand zone, how do things work?
Then, what I had to learn later in my career, because I mostly work in softwares, I had to learn how to be conceptual. Consequently, I need a marker and a whiteboard to be conceptual, because it lends something to it.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is, I think one of the things is, the younger generation tends to be more comfortable with the conceptual and the technology, where the older generation tends to be more comfortable with the hands on the mechanical. That really has not to do with how we grew up and what we grew up with.
Coleman: You’re absolutely right. Where the older generations are more comfortable with hands-on, the younger ones are more comfortable with the technology, because that’s what they’re used to.
However, what I’ve seen, in my experience, when you get an individual, regardless of what generation it is, out into the field, yes, they can learn as much as they can before they get there, but there’s always going to be that blended requirement of it.
You said that you’re a picture learner. You like to see things and understand them. Then, at the end, you’re still going to probably want to put your hands on something to figure out how it feels, get used to touching the tools, used to the tools, the sounds or the tools having that emotional response.
Russel: Yeah, I know. That’s exactly right. It reminds me of my time in the military again. I guess when I started thinking about training, I always think about the military, because one of the things that military does really well is train.
Coleman: I guess the approach we take is everyone has all those different learning styles. You try to build a training program that covers all of them, because if you try to have that magic bullet, you’re going to miss somebody.
We didn’t, take the shotgun effect where we have the audiovisual…If you like reading things, if you like to put your hands on it, all of them are involved. End of the day, you want to be sure that they get the knowledge.
Russel: In this context too, I want to ask one other question around the idea of gamification. Are you guys seeing people use gamification or various kinds of computer-based gaming, used as a mechanism to train?
James: When we first introduced VR to the industry, I think the first thought in most people’s minds were, “Oh, it’s like the video game. My grandson plays that” or “My son plays that” or whatever it might be.
James: We would go to shows, or we would go out on-site, and we’d bring it out, and everybody wanted to play it. That’s what would come out of their mouth is, they would say, “Yeah, we’ll play that after lunch” or something like that.
I think the minute they put it on their head and pull the visor down, everything changes, because they don’t realize now, how far technology has come in the graphic renderings and things of that nature, that it’s full 360. For instance, we have a module that you hold a real fire extinguisher in your hand that has sensors on it.
The weight’s there and it feels right, you pull the pin, and from the experience of the user, they’re transported in it. Something that I saw firsthand was that transcends all generations instantly. The minute that they put that headset on, it changes their world.
I have people that have been in the industry for 30, 40 years, and younger generations folks that put it on, but the reaction was always the same. The technology goes away, and their mind starts churning on, “Man, think about this for abnormal operating conditions,” or, “Think about this on the Right of Way (ROW).”
Or, “Think about this…” Fill in the blank, right? Their minds start churning, and I said, man, this is going to change everything.
Russel: Because it is the closest thing to recreating the experience. So that you actually have that emotional impact that you can get to without actually being in it.
Coleman: It is. That emotional, I was going to mention, James is talking about the people that come up to you say, “I’ll play it after lunch.” The ones that I love the best are the ones that see people doing it and they’re afraid of it. They’re shaking their head like, “Nah, I’m good. I can see it on the TV. I understand what it is.”
You ask them, “Have you ever done VR? Have you ever experienced anything like it?” “Well, no.” Once you finally talk them into it, they go into the trailer, they go into the room, and they get in the VR and they’re fully immersed in the world and they have that emotional response to the type of training that they’ve just gone through.
James is right, when they come out, “Oh, my gosh. Can you imagine what all else we could do with this?” It’s amazing how a two-minute session can completely change someone’s mind on how to use technology.
Russel: I see some opportunity for this around the control room. Where it’s not so much a VR headset, but there is a lot you can do around the screens and so forth. That’s been done for a long time.
To actually put people in the situation, to my mind if you were able to take the events that have occurred, various pipeline incidents, and be able to contextualize them so that you could have multiple people engaged in that circumstance and let them get the emotional experience of being in that circumstance, what could that do for us as an industry?
In terms of our professionalism, our level of safety, our level of care. I think it would be transformational.
Russel: What are the challenges with all of this when you start talking about, now I’ve got to manage people? What starts coming up when you think about training and this dynamic of the generations and the changing technology when you start thinking about managing people around this? What comes up there?
James: Russel, two words. Soft skills all day long.
James: We can say that loudly.
Russel: I said this off-mic. I’ll say it again for the benefit of the listeners. Soft skills are not that soft.
James: That is correct. We can say that loud and proud because it’s an undertaking that we did as a company as well. A lot of people see soft skills as that, “They’re soft, right?” I mean, they’re something that if you got assigned soft skills there was a reason.
James: It’s almost like anger management. It’s an initiative that we took internally and said, you know what? We’ve got to help our managers be better. We’ve got to help our staff be better so that we can lead effective teams and get things across the line.
As we started to develop it internally, we realized, we have a whole industry out there that honestly grew up in the trenches and grew up good ol’ boy network, like we all know. As they moved up the ranks, they didn’t get that option or that opportunity maybe to learn all those soft skills.
As we begin to provide it to the industry, it’s been very receptive. Of course, at the beginning, I wouldn’t say open arms. It wasn’t that soft. Now, as we’ve got out there. We have managers and leaders that are begging for things like this because they don’t understand why people are ultimately walking away and going somewhere else, or not getting the job done.
Russel: Right. Again, we talked about this off-mic, but I remember very well as a young officer in the Air Force, being directed to take leadership training. Actually, that was a compliment because I was getting fast-tracked and I didn’t realize it. I remember thinking, “Man, I’m an engineer. I didn’t come here to deal with people. I came here to build stuff.”
I learned pretty quickly in my career that really you can’t build anything without people.
James: They’re kind of vital.
Russel: I think too that one of the things that I’ve done a number of podcasts on is the need for the front line workers to actually engage their communities around what it is that we do as an industry, and why it’s important, and why people rely on this, and how conscientious we are about the environment, about safety, and those kind of things.
We really need to be equipping the front line to have that conversation. That’s a so-called soft skill.
Coleman: If I can, on top of what James was talking about, I’m pretty inspired with the amount of companies that are coming out and saying, “We need this. We want this. We can’t understand why the people are walking away.” That’s part of the management of the new generations that are now working for our companies. People want to learn how to manage them properly.
They want to learn how to manage them better on their level so that they can maintain their people. Like I said, the companies that are coming out and asking for it, it’s inspirational because that’s a huge leap from, like we said, “I got in trouble, so they’re sending me to soft skills.”
Coleman: To now it’s a proactive thing, “I need this and I want this because I need to be able to manage my workforce better.”
Russel: I think that’s a really good point. I would characterize that as the old school mentality of, just get it done. Versus the newer school mentality, which is, let’s get it done.
Russel: The distinction being, hey, you’re on your own, make it happen. Versus, hey, we’re a team, let’s work together and get it done. I’ve done a lot of podcasts on technology and technology integration and how we exist as silos within the pipeline companies without a lot of interaction between the other skill sets.
The future, and particularly if we’re going to get to four nines and better safety performance, we got to work more effectively as teams.
James: Yeah. That’s part of what we’re out there doing. Part of the ask is, how do I get my teams performing better? How do I do it across all those generations? What Coleman was saying, the fact that we’ve swallowed our pride a bit and we’re reaching our hand out and saying, man, if there is a better way to do this I know, is the starting point.
Russel: I would absolutely agree with that. What would you say is the difference between the soft skills that you need early in your career versus the soft skills you need in the middle and then later?
James: [laughs] If my wife was here, she would say listening.
James: Hopefully, she’ll commend me for saying that. I’ve been blessed to be able to teach some of these classes in the early going and here and there, and honestly, listening is one. We teach on active listening and the importance of it. First, you’ve got to understand everyone. I mean, that’s where a lot of the breakdowns happen.
No matter what generation, where you’re at in your career, every time you lose that true north of active listening, I feel like people start losing course. That one’s huge.
Coleman: That’s generational. Whether you’re early or late in your career, it’s listening. I mean, you listen to different things. When you’re later in your career, you learn to listen to the people that work for you in a more maybe a succinct way or more detailed way.
If there were some distinctions there, listening as an overall is one of the biggest cross-generational soft skill. It’s what you’re listening to, and how you’re able to have patience and try to understand where the other people are coming from.
Russel: I’ve done some advanced leadership training, and a big part of that is your listening skills. We have a couple of things that I’d like to interject into this conversation about listening. The first being that one of the challenges in our business, because it is so technical, that listening can get difficult just because the words we’re using.
Sometimes even, we’ll use the same word to mean different things specifically. Just getting on the same page around vocabulary is a pretty big challenge. That’s where a lot of things start out early. Is just realizing that, hey, I’m talking to somebody that’s coming from a different perspective and they’re using similar words but they mean something different.
Listening for meaning versus just listening for words. Then later, as you begin to deal with teams and such, you got to start listening for the meta conversations. What’s going on in the team? What did they hear me say, and then what are they saying in their head about what they heard me say? That more meta listening.
That’s more of a leadership skill. I couldn’t agree more that listening is by far and away the most important part of any soft skill because, without understanding, it’s hard to get anywhere else.
James: Russel, I think as we get older and move along in our careers that emotional intelligence has really just shined. It’s something that didn’t have a name for a long time. We didn’t really even know how to classify something, but as it gained traction, the more advanced you get in your career, just understanding situational awareness, the whole bit with emotional intelligence is very powerful.
Russel: We started out talking a little in this whole generational thing about millennials often get a bad rap, and certainly, my experience with millennials is very different than the rap you hear otherwise. I’ve had really good experience with people from that generation that have come to work with us.
Russel: What I would say is, they’re like most people in that they want to be heard. They want to make a contribution that makes a difference. They want to feel like their contribution matters. That requires listening and courageous conversation. If you just do those things, well everything else is easy.
Coleman: I like that term, courageous conversation. I was thinking about it. We’re talking about listening, but once you listen, it’s also how you communicate after you’ve listened. When you tell someone that something is wrong today, it’s a little different than telling someone something was wrong back in the ’80s and how you come across to people, so you really got to be conscious of that. I like the courageous conversation.
Russel: I wish I could drag my grandpa around to talk to some of these 16 and 18-year-olds and just watch that interaction. That would be funny.
James: Russel, you said something and I speak around this topic within the industry. One thing I always tell people when they get on the millennials-aren’t-worth-their-weight track.
I say, “Listen, man, I work with some fantastic millennials. I’ve known some that weren’t worth anything, but I can say that about every generation.” We all know somebody in our own generation, who weren’t worth their weight. We also know fantastic people.
Russel: That’s exactly right. It happens in every generation, every generation.
James: Every generation has been scared about the next one coming behind them, and here we are. I think we’ll be just fine.
Russel: I couldn’t agree more. I volunteer with the Boy Scouts and work with a lot of young people. Boy, it just gives me such a grand sense of hope for the future when you start meeting young people of character and purpose.
It just does, and there’s a lot of them out there. It’s our job — as we reach our more senior positions in our careers — to make sure those people have a place to make their contribution that God made them to make.
Russel: That’s really what soft skills all about. It’s just figuring out how to let everybody do what it is they were created to do, and make their contribution.
James: I like that.
Russel: I could talk about this subject for a long period of time. I don’t know if you hear it.
James: Oh, sure. [laughs]
Russel: My voice is the thing I get quite passionate about. It’s strange because I was contemptuous early in my career of the whole idea of soft skills and the importance of that, and I’m in a very different place late in my career about that understanding.
This has been great. I look forward to meeting you guys to one of these conferences so we can have a cocktail and really dive into the conversation.
Coleman: Absolutely. We’re coming from a group of travelers. I should have had a whole lot more airline miles this year.
Coleman: You miss it. It’s an odd thing you miss it…
Russel: I don’t miss the traveling.
Coleman: I do.
Russel: I just missed the being there.
Coleman: I missed the being there, but you get used to it. You feel like you’re missing something right now.
Coleman: But you’re not, because nobody can go. You got to get over that.
Russel: It’s true, though. I think that’s very true.
Coleman: Everybody else is sitting around and missing it, too. At least, you have some comfort in that.
Russel: I will tell you that, at least from my own perspective, doing this podcast and being able to have these conversations and meet people and such stroked that need for me to have these conversations that normally you have at conferences.
James: Yeah, I agree with that.
Russel: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. This has been great. We’d look forward to having you back sometime in the future when we can talk more about the same thing.
Coleman: Absolutely, I really enjoyed it. This was fun. Thanks for having me.
James: Thank you, Russel. Thank you so much.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast, and our conversation with Coleman and James. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
If you would like to support this podcast, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast, Google Play, or whatever smart device app you happen to use to listen. You can find instructions at the resources section of pipelinerspodcast.com.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords