Name: Luther Tai, Ph.D.
Title: Senior Vice President, Central Services
Company: Consolidated Edison Company of New York
- Con Edison created a state-of-the-art central training facility in 1993, called The Learning Center, which contains 39 classrooms, 48 laboratories, an outdoor overhead and underground training pavilion, a library and an auditorium.
- The Learning Center training catalog lists more than 1,000 courses, from automotive repair and welding to leadership classes.
- The Learning Center is a profit center used by a number of other utilities because of its expertise in such areas as networks, splicing and fault locating. Various government agencies also use the facility for environmental and safety training.
- Tai created structured career paths for all skills-related job titles, including a combination of classroom and lab training, on-the-job training and written and practical exams.
- Con Edison started an e-learning program, which allows employees to take certain mandated and elective training when their schedule permits. This reduces travel time and expenses, frees up instructor time for other classes, and provides a new and interactive learning environment.
- Established a Leadership Journey of core leadership programs for employees advancing in their careers.
“Con Edison works to partner with operating organizations to deliver effective, stimulating training and development programs that will help our employees perform their jobs to the highest possible standards. We also supply current and future managers with the skills they need to lead the company into the future.”
They say that New York City never sleeps. If its inhabitants are continually awake, it stands to reason their electric and natural gas utilities are always on too. Good thing Luther Tai, senior vice president, Central Services of Consolidated Edison Company of New York, knows what he’s doing. Tai began his career at Con Edison around 35 years ago as an assistant engineer in systems planning, and moved steadily up the ladder through a variety of positions, including forecasting, general management and strategic planning. Tai was significantly involved in the utility industry’s restructuring and deregulation process that took place in the later half of the 1990s, benchmarking data and helping reposition Con Edison from the sole utility provider in New York to one of many. With responsibility to provide all of the support services in the company, human resources, purchasing, central field services, etc., Tai also is in charge of operations for The Learning Center, Con Edison’s corporate university.
A career of varied job roles has given Tai a range of experience and a solid foundation steeped in technical knowledge of the company’s power plants, substations and transmission facilities, as well as the interpersonal issues that crop up in the central services arm of Con Edison. Rotating through various tiers of responsibility also has given him the insight needed to accurately pinpoint learning solutions. “We really try to make sure that what’s being taught at The Learning Center matches what’s actually needed,” Tai said. “There has to be a connection. The Learning Center works very closely with the line organizations to make sure that the curriculum is up to date and is something that’s being done out in the field.”
The dust has settled from deregulation and the company’s switch to a more competitive utility landscape, but changing employee demographics presents new learning challenges. “We’re hiring a lot of new employees for two major reasons,” Tai said. “One, we have lots of construction that’s going to be taking place and we need additional people, and secondly, we are seeing a lot of retirees. Our challenge is to make sure that we have facilities, resources and an adequate number of faculty members at The Learning Center to train our people appropriately. In the electricity world, and in the gas and steam world, you’ve got to be well-trained because safety is a real concern. We don’t want people to get hurt if they’re doing splicing or if they’re working manholes and whatnot. And you’re dealing with electricity, sometimes high-voltage electricity. We always make sure that our people are well-trained, for their own safety and to make sure they can perform at a very high standard.”
Safety is a continuous improvement program that involves a lot of on-the-job training and safety talks before a task is performed. Thirty percent to 40 percent of the courses offered at The Learning Center feature environment, health and safety training. Providing a solid learning foundation has helped reduce the number of safety incidents, and a well-developed emergency response curriculum has helped Con Edison prepare to handle the unexpected. “We had a blackout about two years ago that affected a large part of the Northeast. We dealt with 9/11 and so forth, and emergency response is a big part of our training,” Tai said. “We drill our folks on what we call the ‘incident command system,’ which we employ whenever there’s an emergency: how to deal with the emergency, how to restore the situation, how to communicate and so forth. The Learning Center is our backup location for the corporate emergency drill. So not only are we using The Learning Center as a training place for our employees, we also use it as a location for drilling and training for emergency response.”
Tai has been a major supporter of e-learning and has pushed its use to create a blended approach, shifting the traditionally instructor-led class dynamic to one offering 24×7 remote accessibility for self-study and virtual learning. “We have lots of weekly people who are less comfortable with technology,” Tai said. “It takes some hand-holding in training, but we’re making progress. We converted about 20 courses last year from classroom instruction to e-learning, and we’re beginning to monitor the progress to make sure we’re making inroads. In the longer time frame, that’s absolutely essential because the demand for learning is going to continue to increase, and it’s a way to allow people to learn at their own time and convenience. With technology available, there’s no reason why people should be denied access to learning. It’s an important enabler. Obviously you can’t do everything on e-learning. Certain things still require face-to-face interaction, but things that are fairly simple and cognitive—they should be moved over to e-learning. We also have something called ‘interactive distance learning.’ We have an instructor at The Learning Center do a broadcasting of, let’s say, OSHA training to a number of satellite locations on the company’s premises. The instructor gives the session, and there may be eight or nine other locations wired in to listen and watch. The instructor can actually ask questions, and people in the audience can raise hands through the wire.”
It’s a rare business environment where employees have little need to access a computer, and the utility environment poses some other interesting constraints on learning. Because of the seasonal nature of many of Con Edison’s workforce requirements, retirees are frequently brought in to handle learning on an as-needed basis. Then there are train-the-trainer classes, where a representative from a line organization is trained by The Learning Center staff so that he or she can go back to the field and train additional people. Tai said these learning delivery methods help manage costs, reach a lot of people and promote efficiency.
Of Con Edison’s roughly 12,000 employees, almost everyone takes four to five courses. More than 65 percent of that population is made up of weekly or union workers. To ensure they’re absorbing the information and applying it on the job, Tai and his team have created a system of courses based on career paths from one position to the next and everything required in between. “Typically they (union labor) progress on a career path,” Tai said. “For example, you might start as what we call a GUW, a general utility worker. The next position level might be a mechanic B. In between, there are lots of courses that you need to take, and those courses have a mastery test at the end. Sometimes the test is written, sometimes it’s both written and involves inspection on the job to make sure you have learned the material. The requirements are based on joint discussions between the people in The Learning Center and the line organizations. Curriculum design is not done in the absence of talking to and working with subject-matter experts in the field, because ultimately what we need to do is train people who can do the work that is required once they’re out there.”
The abundance of learning at Con Edison has shortened the time employees take to move from one position to the next. “We’re making courses available to our employees, and now you can probably move from a GUW title to mechanic A within five or six years, whereas years ago it might have taken 10 or 15 years,” Tai said. “We see that as a measure of success in terms of getting people through their career path. Also, we’ve gained a tremendous amount of productivity over the last 10 to 15 years. If you look at our company in 1990, we had probably 19,000 workers. Today we have about 12,000, and our revenue has gone up tremendously. A lot of it has to do with technology, of course, and learning, and being able to perform better.”
Patrick Wheeler, section manager for HR communications and projects at Con Edison, has known Tai for 15 years. Having worked together on a number of projects, including The Learning Center’s more recent e-learning activities, corporate planning and the deregulation hearings in 1994, he is familiar with Tai’s drive and commitment to learning. “We had a nickname for Luther,” Wheeler said. “We used to call him ‘the runaway train’ in corporate planning because when he gets focused on something, he would drag us all along with him, and at the same time he is so productive at getting his own work done. Luther models behavior in terms of employee development and self-development in many ways. Lifetime learning is something that I know is near and dear to him, and a lot of it goes back to his parents and their desire for their children to excel. He came to this country from China, learned English when he got here, went to Richmond Hill High School in Queens and was the valedictorian of his class. He proceeded to go to MIT, etc., so you can see the importance of education in his personal life.”
The next step for learning at Con Edison will involve expansion of The Learning Center’s e-learning offerings and creating offerings to nurture a more diverse workforce. “We are encouraging diversity, and we’ve been trying to attract women and minorities,” Tai said. He added, “We go to a lot of job fairs and venues where it’s more possible for us to attract women and minority workers, and we monitor the composition of our workforce very carefully to make sure that we’re making progress.”
—Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org
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