Training: All play, all work

For one Edmonton company, training service-rig recruits in the oil industry is just a big game.

Floorhands are the foot soldiers of Alberta's oil industry. As the bottom rung on many service rigsthe massive machinery used to bring new wells into production or retire old spent onesthey work outdoors in isolated locations, where temperatures can range from less than 40°C to more than 30°C. They must be adept at using power tongs, those hydraulic devices that work like an oversized wrench to connect the sections of tubing that form the 9.6-metre-long drill pipe. One slip and they risk damaging valuable wells and equipment, not to mention themselves, but the average starting wage of $22 an hour ensures a steady supply of new recruits.

Getting these prospects up to speed takes a lot of time and money, leading some companies to turn to a technology that's normally at odds with good business practices: computer games. Although the idea of marrying gaming and workplace training has been the talk of academics for quite a while, some still shy away from the G-word. “When we go into a Calgary boardroom and say, 'We want to show you a really cool game,' they show us the door,” says Kevin McNulty, founding partner at Edmonton-based Terris-Hill Productions Ltd., possibly the only firm in the worldand certainly unique in Canadadeveloping game-based training tools for the oil and gas service rigs. Use the term “simulation,” however, and those same doors can quickly open. The reason for the software's appeal is simple: cost. Training a junior floorhand the old-fashioned way takes about 90 days and $35,000 in costs, including wages paid to both new recruits and the veterans who must take time out of the field to show them the ropes, as well as lost productivity. Canada's service-rig industry spent $396 million in wages last year. “When you're training, you're virtually non-productive and you're an expense,” says Lonnie Campbell, director of loss prevention at Concord Well Servicing, a service-rig operator based in Valleyview, Alta., and one of Terris-Hill's customers. “If we can shorten that windowit's just good business.” Using SimuLynx, Campbell expects the training term for junior floorhands to be cut to less than a month by next year.

Oil companies aren't the only ones that see the value in gamingfor example, the Canadian Standards Association supplies emergency response training games to businesses, the Agricultural Institute of Canada uses a Flash-based professional ethics training game, and tech giant Cisco Systems has three titles that teach partners about IP communications, security and storage solutionsbut energy the industry is one of the more active users. McNulty says approximately 25% of Canada's service-rig industryand one major U.S. customer that operates more service rigs than the Canadian industry combinednow uses SimuLynx software.

While Terris-Hill's SimuLynx software at its heart is firmly in the gaming camp, it delivers a realistic, high-resolution 3-D simulation of the technologies, positions and jargon specific to service-rig work, and a glimpse of what life in Alberta's oilpatch is like. Terris-Hill worked with a team of experts from the service-rig industry who provided information “down to the detail of whether, when reaching out for this lever, your thumb should be pointed up or pointed down, and the risk associated with each position,” says McNulty. By the end of this year, training modules for additional job titles on service rigssuch as senior floorhand, derrickhand and operatorwill be available.

For oilpatch firms, deploying a training tool based on near-photo-realistic gaming technology is also about knowing your audience: prospective junior floorhands are typically young men between 18 and 25 years old, most of whom have more than a passing familiarity with computer games. “The old standard three-ring binder full of text with maybe a few pictures is not going to be an effective learning tool for them,” says McNulty.

SimuLynx is not a substitute for hands-on experience, but Concord has also benefited from having a standardized, interactive module for first-timers to learn from. “We're going to teach you the approved right way to do that particular task,” says Campbell. “If you leave it to their frontline supervisors, they'll pass on their beliefs as to what's right and what's wrong to the new worker.”

Standardization also gives employees the knowledge to recognize unsafe conditions, and exercise their right to refuse work. Although the rate of serious accidents in the oil and gas industry has declined significantly over the past few decades, Campbell says being able to safely train on virtual models of multimillion-dollar service rigs with thousands of moving parts definitely pays off. It better. Campbell admits that his firm has invested “millions” in SimuLynx software licenses and the consulting and design expertise he and his staff provided to build the title, which was more than two-and-a-half years in the making. However, the technology has proven its worth as a “self-selection” tool for helping would-be floorhands decide whether oil rigging is the life for them before they leave for northern Alberta. “If you're going to hire somebody and send them 300 miles in the middle of nowhere, you want to make sure he's going to stay, because getting him in there and getting him back costs money,” Campbell says. Even with oil around US$75 a barrel, investing to save money is always a wise decision.