Training Has a Half-Life 

By Sam McNair, PE, CMRP, Life Cycle Engineering

When planning training for your organization, remember that training has a “half-life”. Like radio-isotopes, training decays over time. Its half-life is two to three years. 

In a large chemical plant I once developed some interesting data concerning this when trying to address operator and craft training issues directly affecting asset reliability. In both cases we had done RCFA on failures and established that a baseline number of failures were the direct result of a lack of proper training. Unfortunately it was a nice large representative sample of failures (hundreds) because it took a while to convince people that a real problem existed. 

In both cases we embarked on some very focused, high-quality training which included a required demonstration of proficiency at the end. In both cases the effects were dramatic. It was not cheap to provide good training. In fact it cost about $60k to train and certify 22 millwrights, and about the same to train and certify about 180 operators plus their supervisors in a more limited scope of tasks. The actual payback in both cases was about three months. We knew this because we continued to perform RCFA and post-maintenance testing. 

As time passed we observed that the gains we had made were slipping away. After 2 1/2 years the gains had dropped by 50%. We provided limited refresher training and the results jumped back up to the original level. We jokingly called refresher training “fighting against the dark forces of evil and entropy”.

I began looking for other data points to validate our experience and uncovered the following:

When I looked into the mandatory operator procedure re-training required by OSHA for designated hazardous industries, I found it required feedback from operators and supervisors regarding the correct frequency of refresher training. It had been oscillating back and forth between two and three years for a long time.

Private pilots are required to perform a review and demonstrate basic proficiency every two years. The requirements for instrument flying are even more demanding, requiring certain proficiency demonstrated or recency of experience every six months. You can't tolerate a 50% reduction of proficiency and get away with it instrument flying, but you can survive in normal private pilot operations. Airline transport pilots working for the major airlines are also required to do an extensive refresher every six months due to the complexity and high residual level of performance required on demand at any moment. 

The military also retrains constantly because the consequences of poor performance aren't tolerable. The military has appreciable turnover so training is very expensive and a large part of their overall budget.  

Often companies will fail to train people for fear of losing expensively trained resources. Yes, that can happen. But Henry Ford reflecting on the subject made the best case yet for training: “...far better to have well-trained employees and lose some of them, than have poorly trained employees and keep all of them.”

So here’s the lesson: if you train to obtain a measureable improvement in performance, unless you provide for refresher training in about a two-year time frame, you will measurably lose half or more of what you gained by the initial training. If you want to retain the gains, you must plan for ongoing refresher training. Remember that you have turnover and the new people coming in need to get the proper training too. 

Over and over, at site after site, when we ask why a certain known good practice is no longer in place, we hear the fateful words: “we used to do that, but somehow we got away from doing it.” Don‘t let this happen to your organization. Train effectively in the first place and retrain periodically for retention.


Sam McNair is a senior consultant with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). A Professional Engineer and Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, Sam has more than 34 years of experience in discrete manufacturing, chemical process industries, mining, machine processes, automation, aviation, construction, and utilities. Sam specializes in reliability engineering with a focus on the integration of maintenance and manufacturing functions. You can reach Sam at [email protected].

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