Steamboat Springs When the next class of aspiring millwrights enrolls at the TIC Training Center this fall, they'll be trained to install $25 million turbines in new electrical power plants.
Before the students are given a passing grade, they'll learn to adjust the fans on those turbines until they are lined up within tolerances of no more .001 of an inch.
"One one-thousandth of an inch is about one-third the width of a piece of paper," said Ray Dix as he held up an exquisite little micrometer.
Dix is the manager of the mechanical track at the training center on Steamboat's west side. He and his staff were busy installing a retired steam driven turbine at TIC's newly expanded training facility on Jacobs Circle last week. The turbine was rescued from an old power plant in Oklahoma. It is 60 years old and the lack of maintenance shows on its steel surfaces. But it will serve TIC's students well.
"The technology really hasn't changed that much," Dix explained.
The price of failure in the millwright classroom at TIC is nominal. It's a different story at a job site. Nothing less than the longevity of the expensive machines and their ability to efficiently produce electricity is at stake in the complex installation process.
The high stakes explain TIC's increasing investment in its training programs. About 800 employees some of them in management and engineering programs, others skilled workers in the construction "crafts" will be flown to Steamboat this year for advanced training. While here, the company will house and feed them while their respective divisions continue to pay their salaries. They won't pay tuition as they are taught the skills that will become the foundation of their future career advancement.
"It's like college, but all we have to do is go to work," Jacob Clonts said Wednesday. Clonts is originally from Phoenix but has been employed working with electricians on a pair of power plants under construction in Aurora.
He was in Steamboat last week studying with instructor Dennis Carlson to become a journeyman electrician.
Electrical circuits weren't all that was on the minds of Clonts and about 10 fellow students. Jill Hubbard, who is a technical
assistant with the training program, said the students spent an hour in the morning with one of TIC benefits managers. They got a thorough lesson in the advantages of investing in the company's 401k plan.
"This training program was developed to help train the future leaders of TIC," Hubbard said. "That's what we hope they'll become."
Hubbard, who has been associated with the training program for more than a decade, said she recalls the days when the classrooms were housed in construction trailers. Now, the management training classes are set up in a computer lab that would be the envy of any public university.
Paul Laborde, who manages TIC's pipefitting and welding training, is typical of the company's instructors. He's been a licensed constructing instructor for four years, but began his career working at job sites for the company's Wyoming division.
"This is really something I've been doing all my life," Laborde said in a soft southern drawl. "After work, I'd bring in the younger people and say, 'would you like to learn something after hours?'"
He found his less experienced colleagues were always eager to improve their skills.
"I didn't get paid for it and they didn't either," he recalled.
One day, Laborde's construction supervisor approached him with a proposition. The boss said the company would like him to take a trailer equipped as a welding classroom to other job sites. Laborde at first believed they wanted him to train workers all over Wyoming in addition to performing his regular duties. He didn't think it was possible.
Instead, TIC was proposing a permanent change of assignment.
Today, the company has seven semi trailers that have been refurbished to include seven welding booths each. They can deliver on-the-job training all over the country.
Laborde is excited about the chance to introduce the latest "orbital welders" to his students. Step out of the welding shop and into the pipefitting classroom and visitors are immediately confronted with a dry-board filled with trigonometric equations. Math is a big part of the program, and there's nothing simple about calculating the angles necessary to install piping in large industrial plants.
TIC has selected instructors who are able to combine long experience in the field with an enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge. All of them have been trained to teach in their fields.
Roger Lara came through the training program and now teaches entry-level employees the basics of becoming an industrial carpenter and concrete former. Lara has found he must employ different strategies to match his students' varying learning styles."It's a challenge to sit in a classroom and teach a fellow who is 40 years old at the same time you've got an 18-year-old guy," Lara said.
TIC's strategy for the future relies heavily on its ability to train the skilled workers it needs to grow its business.