Training Surges for Workers at the Grand Coulee Dam

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Grand Coulee Dam spans the Columbia River in a remote area east of the Cascades in Washington State and provides hydroelectric power to about a fifth of the United States. The Grand Coulee might not be as well-known as its counterpart to the south—the Hoover Dam—but it’s the largest hydroelectric facility in North America and the second largest concrete structure on the planet. To keep it running requires a team of highly skilled workers and engineers working in perfect synchronicity. 

The Grand Coulee is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, which has about 6,000 total employees, with 550 dedicated workers on site. Keeping these employees up-to-date on their training is a tremendous challenge for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the dam's remote location. 

Before forming the training department, getting qualified trainers to the site was a challenge. Experts would fly into Spokane, Washington, and drive more than an hour to local motels where they'd stay while conducting training. This process was a non-stop operation due to the highly technical nature of what we do and the needs of our employees. It was important but difficult, so we looked for ways to improve. 

It was determined that an on-site training department was needed at Grand Coulee to keep workers up to speed and improve operations. Some of the highly technical training is still outsourced, but we're now working to develop in-house programs to keep employees abreast of new information and knowledge in the industry, as well as keep them up-to-date on their certifications. 

Developing and managing the training and operations of such a highly skilled workforce at such a technologically advanced and complex facility is daunting to say the least. But even though the training department has only been around for two years, we’re seeing tremendous success. 

Of our 550 employees, approximately 50 are supervisors. Before the training department existed, those 50 supervisors were responsible for everything—not only the day-to-day operations in their specific fields, but also training, documentation, and certification tracking of their individual teams. This would be challenging for any one person to manage, so as quickly as we could, the training department started taking things off the supervisors' lists of responsibilities that we could control and manage.


Case in Point

One of the most apparent issues was the coordination and tracking of training and certifications. A holistic approach was needed to manage this issue, which had previously been handled in an ad-hoc manner. 

Many of the individuals who work here have numerous certifications that require periodic, regular training to remain current. To manage this, we created a unique, centralized tool called the “Training Tracker Database” to visualize every certification time and requirement of every employee at the dam. It’s a simple green-yellow-red interface:

  • green means the employee is current on all certifications
  • yellow means the employee is within 90 days of lapsing
  • red means the employee’s certification has lapsed and he or she needs to be trained or re-certified in that skill set before resuming those duties. 

This database is available to everyone at Grand Coulee, so any employee can know their status at any given time. This keeps everyone safe and on the same page. Other agencies within the Bureau of Reclamation are looking into using this model at their facilities, as well.  
One of the biggest benefits we’re finding from centralizing and visualizing training is that we have much greater flexibility in scheduling, leading to increased efficiencies across the board. Instead of working around the schedules of a training vendor, who might only be available once or twice a year to offer a particular, highly specified program, we can now offer training around our employee’s schedules. This allows teams to remain on the job at the most critical times, keeping dam operations smooth and efficient. 

Additionally, by offering most everything on-site, we’re able to provide not only highly technical training, but also training in leadership skills, management, and communication, to name a few. By investing in our employees in this way, we’re creating the best, most-knowledgeable employees of this kind in the world.

Bottom Line

Managing training at one of the most sophisticated hydroelectric power plants on the planet is a daunting task, but an extremely rewarding one. The Grand Coulee Dam is a modern marvel of American ingenuity, and I’m honored to keep the men and women who work here up to the task of keeping it running.

About the Author
Cory Dunlap began his career in the United States Marine Corps, where he served in the infantry, leading Marines in combat operations in both invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. As his eight-year active duty service was coming to completion, he accepted a position in the Civil Service under Marine Corps Training and Education Command, where he continued to serve his country and the Marine Corps for 10 additional years.  It was in these first 18 years that Dunlap's passion for training and education began to cultivate, as well as his passion for government service. In 2015, Dunlap left the Marine Corps and accepted the position of training administrator for the Grand Coulee Power Office under the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.
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