Professional Services: Continuing Education and the Quest for Qualified Personnel
Today, we face a different world and a much more complex ceramic industry. And while educational resources today are better than they were a quarter of a century ago, the target keeps moving. How can appropriate training and personnel development for the ceramic industry be accomplished? What resources are available? Are they adequate? Are they properly used? What new resources are needed? How can ceramic engineers keep themselves current, or prepare for professional engineering exams and registration? How can corporations set up effective training programs? And how critical is all of this for the industry?
First, consider a few possibly contentious statements:
- A large portion of non-ceramic engineering personnel in the ceramic industry, including production supervisors, technicians, process control personnel, salespeople and managers, have had little or inadequate training in ceramic technology.
- Profit margins, production yields and product quality all suffer from the shortage of ceramic-enabled personnel.
- Because of the increasing complexity of the ceramic industry, its products and its production methods, the need for trained people becomes greater each year.
- In a specialized, diverse and relatively small industry such as ours, finding resources to keep abreast of technology is difficult.
- Most companies lack the internal resources (time, money, personnel) to mount fully effective in-house training programs.
- Ceramic engineers who want to prepare for professional engineering exams find a lack of resources.
- The industry needs more robust continuing education programs.
Current ResourcesWhile the situation is far from hopeless, sources of comprehensive training are somewhat limited and need enhancement. With a few exceptions, training and education in ceramic technology (outside of full-fledged ceramic engineering programs) is forced into a somewhat piecemeal approach based on cobbling together a mixture of partial measures. Following are some of the resources currently available to ceramic professionals:
Correspondence and Online Training Programs. Correspondence and online programs such as the Ceramic Correspondence Institute (CCI), operated by the American Ceramic Society (ACerS), are often the most comprehensive and easily accessible ways to gain continuing education. Three decades ago, four young Ph.D. ceramists perceived a need for practical education in ceramic technology for production personnel, technicians and other non-ceramic engineers in the industry.* At the time, virtually no resources for such training existed. CCI was founded in 1972 to meet part of that need.
In some respects, we are still in the same boat. In 1976, the “state of the art” for Ceramic Correspondence Institute courses was an IBM Selectric typewriter and a quick print shop. Today the courses are done on a word processing computer and put directly onto the Internet, with updates available in mere minutes. Extensive graphics and live links are routine. CCI answered a real need and continues to do so, but the program needs to be and is being expanded. The ceramic industry at the beginning of this new millennium is much more complex. Entirely new classes of materials and products are manufactured using processes that didn’t exist three decades ago, and the need for effective training is greater than ever.
After serving over 2000 students in over fifty countries, CCI has recently undergone rejuvenation. New courses have been and are being added to the program. Original courses have been updated. Nine courses are now available online, as well as in a print format. ACerS realizes that CCI is a very important and unique asset and resource for the industry and has made a commitment to ensure that it meets the industry’s growing needs.
CCI has plans to extend its reach to include more technical courses for engineers in online format. Several of the current courses already perform this function, including Ceramic Processing, Statistical Process Control for Ceramics and Glass, and Refractory Technology. These represent topics that are often no longer offered in ceramic engineering curricula.
CCI courses offer a great deal of flexibility, since they can be taken at the convenience of the student and do not require regular classroom attendance or travel, and they are relatively inexpensive. However, they do suffer from a lack of personal contact with other students and an instructor, unless they are used as part of a training program with class sessions. When broadband communication becomes more widely available, the inclusion of live chat sessions, audio and video segments, and interactive graphics will help mitigate this shortcoming. Online courses already offer extensive live links to a world of information, something the original correspondence print format could not offer.
Short Courses. A number of short courses related to ceramic technology are available from educational institutions (Alfred University, Clemson University and Hocking Technical College, to name a few) and from private institutions, such as ACerS, the Center for Professional Advancement and the Ceramic Manufacturers Association (CerMA). Such courses cover specific, and generally rather narrow, aspects of ceramic technology. Many are targeted at ceramic engineers, although some good courses also exist for manufacturing personnel. By their nature, short courses require travel to the course location at the times set for the course. This involves expenses and time away from the job. However, they offer the advantage of hands-on training and personal contact.
Technical and Trade Journals. An excellent source of current information on a wide variety of topics comes from various magazines, such as Ceramic Industry, Industrial Heating and others. Journals can be read at any convenient time, but they seldom present comprehensive coverage of technical or manufacturing topics, and only topics selected by the publishers are available. Also, a basic level of technical expertise or knowledge is generally assumed. Finally, not all personnel receive these publications or are considered qualified by the publishers to receive them at no charge (if the publication is available on that basis).
The Internet. A wealth of information is now available via the World Wide Web. Powerful search engines make finding information relatively easy, although (except for the online courses already discussed) comprehensive training is generally not available. Not only is technical information available, but marketing, business and financial information can also be found online. This new resource is receiving greater use, and its usefulness is expected to grow.
In-House Training Programs. Many larger companies have training programs for their employees, and outside experts are often brought in to conduct such programs. Programs can be specifically tailored to the needs of the company. However, training of production personnel is a problem, since it is necessary to take such personnel off the production floor. At any given time, only a portion of the people who need training can be given classroom time. Such programs also tend to be expensive to put on, and many companies lack the qualified personnel internally to organize and teach such programs.
Technical Books. A variety of books related to ceramic technology are available from a number of sources. Few of these offer broad coverage of the basics of ceramic technology or manufacturing. Most are highly technical and narrow in scope, but they can be very helpful in keeping engineers current or providing advanced training and information in specialized areas. Technical books tend to be relatively expensive and thus out of reach of some production personnel. They also tend to become outdated quickly.
Industry Suppliers. Many suppliers provide quite a bit of very valuable technical information. Again, such information is usually not comprehensive, but a lot of very practical and useful information is often available for the topics covered. In addition, suppliers will often provide useful services such as testing, demonstrations or training that can be invaluable.
Ceramic Information Center. Operated by ACerS, the CIC is not designed to be an education resource as such. However, for a fee, a great deal of information can be obtained that by its nature educates. The center is generally used by companies requiring specific information and not by individuals looking for training.
Developing Training ProgramsDeveloping an effective program of education and training in ceramic technology requires a bit of conscious effort and organization. There are two dimensions of training to be considered: development of programs for individuals, and development of group programs. In each of these two segments, we should also consider programs for non-engineers and programs for engineers seeking technical growth or preparation for professional exams. The basic steps involve evaluation of the level of education already achieved, the subject areas that are weak or lacking, the level of educational achievement needed, and the resources that are available to remedy the shortcomings.
The Individual’s Responsibility. Ultimately, it is each individual’s responsibility to obtain an appropriate level of education and to keep it current. For engineers, the first aspect involves a college or university degree program. Keeping current is a continuing struggle, but as we have discussed, a number of professional resources are available. For non-engineers, particularly those without formal college training, obtaining the basic level of education in ceramic technology is an enormous hurdle. In both cases, however, each individual has to find the motivation to obtain the necessary training. Resources do exist, and the old cliché about leading a horse to water does apply. To illustrate the point, an unfortunately large percentage of students enrolled by their companies in correspondence courses do not complete them, presumably because of a lack of motivation and/or follow-up. There has to be a level of self-motivation for success.
Corporate Training Programs. Many corporations have realized that the inadequate training and knowledge base of their employees can adversely affect their business. A full spectrum of needs is involved, from comprehensive training in ceramic technology to very specialized training in narrow topics, often unrelated to ceramics (computer technology, for example). Training may need to be targeted for relatively large groups of employees or for just one or several employees.
At least two aspects are related to corporate involvement in continuing education and training of employees. Perhaps the most important relates to corporate attitude and culture. Are employees treated with individual respect and value, or are they viewed by the corporation as simply another type of asset along with production equipment, raw materials, inventory, etc. Are employees’ observations, opinions and suggestions sought and valued, or are they ignored? Do employees have a high level of self-esteem and self-value that is actively reinforced by their employer? Do they believe that their employer values them as individuals and as important members of the corporate team? Or do they picture themselves as just another cog in the corporate works? Is promotion tied to continuing education? Is compensation related to continuing education? Are those who further their education given peer recognition?
Without a positive situation in this first aspect, the second aspect—making education and training programs available and organizing them—becomes somewhat immaterial. If a poor corporate culture or environment exists, a key part of organizing an effective training program must be changing the environment. That is not easy, but a well-developed, well-communicated and sincere training program can be a real factor in improving the environment. That improvement alone may be more important than the education provided.
Depending on the company’s needs, corporate training programs may be, and usually need to be, multi-faceted. Programs may include in-house programs, tuition payment or reimbursement for college or correspondence courses, travel to and payment for short courses or technical meetings, flexibility in work hours to allow participation in classroom-based education, providing Internet access for online opportunities, one-on-one or small group training, provision of technical or trade journals and textbooks, and visits to customers or suppliers.
Another aspect of successful programs is inclusivity. Given the impact of new technologies on business, many different types of personnel may need a wide variety of types of training. Technical, management, sales, marketing, production and maintenance personnel in the ceramic industry may all need training in ceramic technology at varying levels, and each of these groups may have additional non-ceramic needs as well. Since our discussion is focused on ceramic-related training, and since this is a much more difficult area in which to find training resources, we will finish by concentrating a bit more in this area.
It should be obvious that a large proportion of production personnel need to be ceramic-enabled. How can an employee be expected to produce quality products cost effectively without knowledge of basic ceramic processing? How can ceramic processing be controlled without this knowledge, as well as effective training in statistical process control (SPC)? Conversely, training in SPC is not fully effective without training in ceramic processing. Many sales and marketing personnel cannot be fully effective without being ceramic-enabled. Solving customers’ problems and meeting their needs often increasingly requires knowledge of ceramic technology. Given the trend to greater automation and more sophisticated production equipment, maintenance personnel need to understand ceramic technology as well as computer control, electronics, hydraulics and much more. In such an environment, companies must be willing to find ways to provide basic and advanced training to their employees.
The following recommendations for corporate programs may be helpful. They are based on a number of years of experience observing corporate programs, both successful and otherwise.
- Make it clear that the corporation strongly supports and needs continuing education efforts, and establish a formal, flexible program if one does not exist.
- Establish meaningful incentives for employees to participate.
- Name a corporate training supervisor if such a person does not exist. Make certain there is consistent corporate involvement and follow-up in training efforts.
- Whenever possible, have groups of employees take courses concurrently.
- Conduct regular classroom sessions to augment any correspondence or online courses in which a group of employees has enrolled. Have staff members discuss topics in the context of the corporation’s operations or business. For individual employees, assign an engineer or supervisor to conduct one-on-one sessions.
- Provide visible recognition of completion of training programs, as well as monetary rewards.
- Reimburse employees for tuition and other costs if the corporation does not cover these up front. Many corporations have paid a portion of costs up front and the balance on course completion.
- Provide time off or flexible work hours for classroom courses as needed.
- Find ways to bring Internet access (and training if necessary) to every employee, both at work and especially at home. Provide loaner computer systems if necessary.
A Look AheadWe started our discussion with a look back 25 years. What will the next 25 years bring? The totally unexpected, the totally unimaginable, and faster rates of change. Can any of us as individuals or companies expect to cope with the world of 2026 based on our current education base? I think not. If there has been a growing need for continuing education over the past quarter century, certainly the need will be still greater in the upcoming years.
What will our educational systems look like? Will the classroom teacher be a thing of the past? That’s highly unlikely, but the face of education will certainly be quite different. There will be greater opportunities for individuals and companies that meet the challenge of continuing education. Those who meet that challenge will have the opportunity to prosper and grow, while those who don’t, won’t.
*The co-founders of CCI were Drs. Carl E. Frahme, Norman H. Harris, Andre P. Galliath, and John D. Weyand.