Training abroad reinforces bond with employer

Dofasco says its product is steel, but its strength is people. The company is putting its money where its mouth is by supporting its employees with a unique off-site training initiative.

For more than five years, Dofasco has been sending employees to other countries to learn new procedures. It can be an expensive way to train people, but they believe it’s worth the cost.
Tom Vert, a process improvement coach at Dofasco, travelled with a team of workers to three different companies in France and England to learn how to fortify the huge ladles they use to carry molten steel. With the existing ladle design, holes could sometimes develop, putting workers on the shop floor at risk.

In Europe, companies were lining their ladles with “refractory concrete” which was seamless, and far less likely to leak than the brick-lined ladles in Canada.
The team met with operating and technology specialists, comparing designs, materials and methodology. Then they went to see the ladles in operation.

“You can read (about it) all you want, but in the steel business you have to go out and see it for yourself,” says Vert. “Is the (foreign) operation worse than yours, better than yours? They can make it work but can we make it work with our processes?”

They determined that they could implement the new ladle design and get the materials they would need for the job. Vert wrote up the recommendations in a trip report that was loaded onto Dofasco’s intranet for instant knowledge-sharing.

The trip cost Dofasco about $20,000, but as Vert points out, “if you prevent one ladle break-out, that’s an average of a million dollars because there’s molten steel all over the floor, you have to shut down the production. That’s not even including the safety factor.

“The cost is really minimal compared to what you can get out of it.”
Dofasco engineer Traci Stanton agrees. She participated in a team trip to the north of France to learn more about a “hot-dip galvanizing line” at a company called Usinor.

Dofasco was implementing new technology it had purchased from Usinor. As part of the purchase agreement, they allowed a Canadian team to visit the company to discuss practices and troubleshooting, and develop benchmarks.

A spin-off benefit was the networking Stanton and her team members did.
“When I have a problem now I can pick up the phone and talk to any one of the people I met,” says Stanton. “It’s now personal. From that standpoint alone, it’s invaluable.”

Not only do the people on the trip gain a sense of accomplishment, but Dofasco gains through that shared knowledge.

“The best way for our people to learn (about new technology) is to operate it,” says Brian Mullin, the firm’s HR director.

“Rather than learn by error or learn by mistake. (They) learn the traits and characteristics of the equipment, learn what the finished product looks like.” He says it makes for faster start-up times back home.

In order to provide a high-value product you need to have employees who look at things differently, who think differently. By exposing employees to different cultures and methodologies, they gain a new perspective on their work and refresh their commitment to the company.

In addition to short-term trips, Dofasco also sponsors trips lasting six months to a year in foreign countries. Those extended trips help cement the company’s relationships with foreign firms.

“It allows us to build relationships... inside our industry, outside our industry,” says Mullin. “There are things you can learn all over the place.”

At a time when employee retention is crucial, the trips provide some personal perks for workers.

Stanton and the line operators travelled to the beaches at Dunkirk and Vimy Ridge. “We saw the monument to the Canadians at Vimy. We went to Paris. Some of (our operators) had never been outside of Canada.”

“They were eating things that, there’s no way they would ever have tried in Canada. Escargots... mussels, even, for some of them (was new). I think I saw in them a new self-confidence. They came back from this experience saying ‘hey, I can do this. I can go somewhere where I can’t speak the language and I can do just fine.’”

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