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TIP International Practice Forum: Combating Worldwide Effects of Automation on Workforce Competency

Lynda Zugec Managing Director, The Workforce Consultants

Have you ever wondered about the effects of automation in the workplace? In this issue of the International Practice Forum, we connected with Mary Ann, Tristan, and Hector at Chevron Products Company to get a peek at how organizations are incorporating automation and how the potentially harmful and unanticipated results of it can be mitigated against.
Combating Worldwide Effects of Automation on Workforce Competency


Mary Ann Burress, Tristan Grigoleit, & Hector Silva

Chevron Products Company

Competition in world markets force companies to address problems of declining productivity, high cost-structures, increasing retirements, and an inexperienced workforce. Numerous industries (e.g., Aerospace, Automotive, and Petrochemical) attempt to improve reliability, strengthen safety, and reduce operating costs through the increased use of automation, which has been known to contribute to skill degradation. Below, we present the example of the Console Operator to demonstrate how animation may be contributing to skill degradation alongside the potential solutions which can combat this effect.

Petrochemical plant console operators are integral to the petrochemical industry. The competencies associated with being a console operator are universally recognized by the industry as a main component to business survival. The purpose of this article is to describe the use of I-O methods to create a console operator development and simulation program. Initial development has occurred for such a program in the United States and implementation is an ongoing process at company sites around the world, including Australia, Kazakhstan, and Africa.

Petrochemical plant operators are required to learn how to manage distributed control systems (DCS) as a progression of their work. These DCS, often referred to as consoles, allow operators to monitor and adjust plant processes from a control room. Working as a “console operator” (CO) requires significant field experience and presents unique challenges:

  • The CO coordinates the safe and reliable operation of process plants and is responsible for coordinating emergency operation efforts
  • Over time, much of the CO’s role has been automated to increase process reliability
  • Managing an automated task that does not require active process management often results in systematic deskilling long term
  • Passively monitoring an automated process for changes can result in a decreased ability for COs to recognize and prevent plant upsets
  • The console interface contains many pages of process information the CO is required to monitor and manage
  • Less experienced COs will have a limited ability to actively learn how to manage plant upsets due to the lower frequency of these events and limited hands-on opportunity for them to manage the console over more experienced operators

To confront these challenges, simulation training was determined an appropriate tool for developing console operators. Simulation training can provide COs with the opportunity to experience rare events that require confident and decisive response. There is significant evidence for the underutilization of simulation training programs across the industry. Therefore, this program created an integrated performance system rather than a focus on the simulation tools. The components, discussed in turn below, include the following: competency models, curriculum, tools simulation, performance measurement, and a sustainability plan.

Competency Models

Training programs identify the competencies and capabilities that target learners require to be successful in their roles. An existing competency framework was the starting point. Competencies for console operation were more specifically defined using focus groups of expert performers, process engineers, and front-line supervisors. A behaviorally anchored rating scale was developed for each competency using participant input from the focus groups. Asking the expert operators “what does good look like” provided specific anchors for the performance measurement process, reduced resistance to change, and increased their commitment to using the process.

A learner needs analysis was conducted to determine the required knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Learner needs analyses involved engaging workers (from experts to novices) to identify a role’s required KSAs and gaps in current training. Critical tasks such as emergency response situations required a task analysis to identify specific KSAs related to an appropriate response that required training.


Curriculum was developed using a problem solving, activity based, learner centered approach. A partnership was created with expert operators and an experienced instructional systems designer. The team used the ADDIE instructional systems design model (analysis, design, develop, implement, and evaluate; Bozarth, 2008).


The curriculum is a modular structure based on functional equipment groups and system components mapped to each competency. The modular system enables a focused development plan that addresses individual gaps found during competency assessment. A modular design allows console operators-in-training to focus on one plant (or section of a plant) at a time without being overwhelmed managing the entire unit.


The curriculum structure advances operator skills gradually through both equipment and system components so the learner is not overwhelmed. The learner is given time during regular work hours on the simulator for deliberate practice (Hoffman et al., 2014) on a specific scenario. This means that the learner is expected to respond to an upset condition on the simulator as if on the live console. This enables the individual to receive feedback and build cognitive memory for the response that most effectively manages the risk. Deliberate practice enables the operator to build confidence and competence. It’s much like a pro golfer building muscle memory for a golf swing.

Tools Simulation

“Use the right tool for the job” is a familiar phrase in the petrochemical industry. In practice, this means there is a need to simulate the entire console or plants under the control of each console operator rather than only the largest plant(s). Simulating the entire console creates a realistic work situation for the operator. Petrochemical processing units are dynamic, nonlinear systems. Consequently, when large plants are upset, the upset condition affects associated plants. These other plants increase the workload of the console operator and often have the potential to impact environmental regulations if not managed correctly.

Expert operators, process engineers, leaders with deep technical expertise, and operations management identified and agreed on the critical scenarios for each processing unit. Operators agreed across all crews on the important scenarios that should be simulated.

Multiple experienced operators partnered with human factors engineers and conducted a task analysis for each scenario to be simulated. These experts used task analysis results to review, revise, develop, and / or confirm the operating procedures for each critical scenario.

The task analysis captured the implicit knowledge of expert operators and fostered knowledge transfer to junior operators. This information supported software programming for simulation developers, which reduced rework and costs in tool development.

Performance Measurement

Expert console operators identified performance variables important to managing each scenario. The identified performance variables are part of the skills demonstration and competence assurance process. Measuring objective performance is necessary to determine the level of effectiveness of the simulator training program. The metrics documented are used to evaluate the effectiveness of the program more so than the capabilities of the learner.

A computer-based simulator allows the opportunity to collect the needed information to determine if the training program needs adjustment or refinement. However, in a complex environment such as that of the console operator’s, there can be many different data that can be considered for determining performance. Prioritization and selection of information used to determine performance was identified through a task analysis. The image above Illustrates an example of performance measurement. The dotted red lines are the process variables that need to be managed by the console operator. Over or under these critical variables results in error, loss of profit opportunities, and potentially the introduction of a hazardous situation. 

Information used to determine level of training effectiveness should be tied to manipulation of console process variables, critical to the safe and efficient operation of the processing unit, and within the span of control of the console operator.

Sustainability Plan

Knowledge and skill, including that of COs, can decay over time of non-practice due to increased automation. Therefore, the consistent maintenance of CO capability is required. It could be that a console operator, by chance, does not experience a specific emergency or upset condition during their live console work time, resulting in little to no practice of that particular situation. This situation exemplifies the need for the continual refreshing of console operator competencies towards the goal of retaining skills and knowledge.

Retention of skill can be evaluated by comparing performance at the end of a training period with performance at the end of some amount of time during which there was no prior training. This evaluation would be an indication of performance loss and can then be used to determine the frequency of refresher training. Refresher training sessions employ similar feedback principles as those mentioned above.

The simulator system itself requires maintenance and technical IT upkeep (bugs and patches).  Functional upkeep is also required when equipment and processing units change over time. A change in the field may change how a CO operates the console, which needs to be modeled on the simulator.

The program is designed to impact business results by increasing console operator competency.

A systems approach to training program development recommends a continuous review of training success to evaluate whether the program is meeting stated objectives. A systematic review cycle should be established for all components of the program including: learner needs, task analysis, and curriculum to ensure past results are still accurate. Changes made in the field need to be reflected in the development program. Operator involvement in this review process ensures accuracy and invites operator commitment to use the program.

Workforce capability has been recognized by the oil and gas industry as a main component to business survival. Console operator competency is a critical element that facilitates competitive success in the relationship between business requirements and organizational capability. Maintaining a competitive position in this industry is linked to the ability to manage in a process-safety focused environment. In an era of increasing automation, it is necessary to determine the impact it is having on key positions across industries and ensuring that we mitigate against skill degradation.

WE ARE LOOKING FOR YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O psychology community, to reach out and submit topic ideas for future columns. Give us your insights from lessons learned in your practice or inform us of what is happening. We are always seeking global contributors!

To provide any feedback or insights on the International Practice Forum or find out more, please send an email to the following address:



Bozarth, J. (Ed.). (2008). From analysis to evaluation: Tools, tips, and techniques, for trainers. San Frnacisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Grigoleit, T., Silva, H., Burress, M. A., & Chiappe, D. (2017). Toward a descriptive measure of situation awareness in petrochemical refining. In S. M. Cetiner, P. Fechtelkotter, & M. Legatt (Eds.), Advances in human factors in energy: oil, gas, nuclear and electric power industries: Proceedings of the AHFE 2016 International Conference on Human Factors in Energy: Oil, Gas, Nuclear and Electric Power Industries, July 27-31, 2016, Walt Disney World®, Florida, USA (pp. 3-14). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Hoffman, R. R., Ward, P., Feltovich, P. J., DiBello, L., Fiore, S. M., & Andrews, D. H. (2014). Accelerated expertise: Training for high proficiency in a complex world. New York, NY: Psychology Press.


About the Authors

Dr. Mary Ann Burress leads the Learning and Development component of Chevron’s Complex Processing Facility (CPF) organization. Facilities under the CPF remit are in the US, Africa, Australia, Asia, E. Europe, and S. America. Ann’s role is to grow workforce capability by aligning stakeholders and developing and leveraging best practices across the organization. She drives change using high touch, high employee involvement, and engagement strategies that engender commitment and build capability. Ann provides thought leadership with corporate transformations, large-scale organizational change, high performance work systems and multidisciplinary global teams. 

Ann received her MS and PhD from the University of North Texas and is a member of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Tristan Grigoleit has over 5 years of experience working as a Human Factors Engineer for Chevron’s manufacturing division. He provides various services for Chevron including task analysis, interface evaluation, design recommendations, and training. Tristan has also served as an adjunct instructor at Cerritos College since 2017. In addition to Human Factors expertise, Tristan leverages his background in graphic design toward the improvement of interfaces and tools used in the process control and software development industries. Tristan completed his MS in Human Factors Psychology at CSULB in 2015 and has continued his professional development by participating in User Experience Design and Incident Investigation training programs. His interests include art, cats, video games, archery, and scuba diving.

Hector Silva is a Human Factors Engineer at Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery. Hector works in cross-functional teams to assist in improving the development of console operators in addition to serving as an advisor on Human Factors applications and best practices. His background includes the study of improving human performance through simulated practice and training. Hector has previously worked in the aviation industry with air traffic controller populations as well as in the automotive industry assessing the usability of in-vehicle technologies and their impact on driver performance in both simulated and real-life driving. Hector received both his MS in Human Factors Psychology and BA in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach.


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