Inside Noble Corp.’s new high-tech training center (photos)

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Training workers on the latest high-tech equipment is becoming even more critical at Noble Corp. as the offshore drilling contractor plans to spin off its older rigs.

To boost employees’ skills in using newer equipment, Noble launched a training center in Sugar Land, Texas in August. The state-of-the-art facility is designed to keep employees up-to-speed on operating offshore rig equipment, using realistic simulations.

After the spin off, the existing Noble will consist only of rigs built after 2007.

“They’re not just bigger and better in terms of the iron,” said Bob Newhouse, the company’s vice president for learning and development. “They’re very heavily technology-laden. It’s joysticks and touchscreens.”

Noble has a fleet of 77 units around the world and more than 80 percent of its 6,000 employees work offshore. Newhouse said the training center is for employees who have prior experience but need to hone their skills. Eventually, he expects 500 to 600 workers will go through the facility each year.

Recruiting: Energy company hopes video game will help fill long list of job openings

The goal of the new training center is to give employees an experience that’s as real to life as possible to ensure they perform well when they’re operating offshore, where millions of dollars and dozens of lives can be at stake.

Crane operators practice in a rotating chair surrounded by monitors, giving them dramatic views as they move virtual cargo. Ballast control operators — charged with keeping a vessel level and stable — move about in equipment that resembles a flight simulator. And when a drilling operator sits in a chair, his view on the massive screen and instrument panels mimic what he’ll encounter in real life, too.

As employees practice different jobs together, their workstations are linked via software. As a result, everyone’s performance affects that of their colleagues — just like on a rig.

The simulation can be fed actual geological data from the site where employees will be deployed to help mimic the conditions they’ll encounter on a specific job.

“The (closer) you can get to reality, the more immersed they can be in the training,” said Fritz Golding, Noble’s director of simulation and training programs.

Newhouse said training is especially important as rigs becomes more technologically advanced.

“What had been the traditional development pathways aren’t going to work anymore,” Newhouse said. “You can’t really step into the driller’s cabin on one of our newer rigs just by having hung around for 10 years.”

Still, not everything in the training facility is high tech. Emergency management training focuses more on procedures and communication than technical skills. Supervisors go through simulations as mundane as a trash can fire all the way to a crash on the rig’s helicopter landing pad. Employees also can get training in leadership and communication techniques.

“Can we make someone learn faster? I don’t know,” says Newhouse. “But we can give them experience faster.”

Also on FuelFix:

3-D simulators provide solution to workforce skills-gap