Gas Training Takes Giant Leap Forward

February 2012, Vol. 239 No. 2

What does it take to make a dream come true?

First and most importantly, you start with a leadership that has a vision.

This is how Atmos Energy’s Charles K. Vaughan Center became a reality. For those unfamiliar with the natural gas industry’s leading technical training facility, let us make the introduction.

Completed in 2010 and officially opened on June 21, 2011, the $9 million Vaughan Center is located on an 11-acre site in the Dallas suburb of Plano. The Vaughan Center employs a staff of 80 and comprises nearly 50,000 square feet on land that was acquired from the The University of Texas at Dallas. As part of its growing relationship with UT Dallas and its recognition of the need for higher education, Atmos Energy also donated $100,000 to fund scholarships and academic programs.

But then that’s all part of the enduring legacy that Charles K. Vaughan created at Atmos, the nation’s largest natural gas-only distribution company with more than 3 million customers located in more than 1,600 communities in 12 states.

There are three main components of the Vaughan Center: Gas City, the Flow Lab and the Plano service center. The entire center is Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certified by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. The Vaughan Center is designed to train new technicians and veterans to be certified and recertified regularly. Atmos says its entire technical workforce must be recertified at least every four years to meet federal and state operator qualifications as well as its own stringent requirements.

Welcome To Gas City

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Vaughan Center is Gas City, an area constructed behind the main building that is designed to enable employees to practice and enhance their professional skills. Atmos says Gas City was built to resemble a typical community with houses, mini-apartments and commercial buildings along with city streets having natural gas and other buried utility infrastructure.

The Vaughan Center leaves no manhole cover unturned. Want to know what it feels like to work in a confined space? They’ll open a manhole cover for anyone willing to climb down 10 feet to find out. In addition to teaching proper safety and operational practices, the Center stresses excellence in customer service. So technicians also improve their skills on turning on natural gas service, lighting their gas appliances and explaining how to use them safely and efficiently.

Inside the Vaughan Center are state-of-the-art classrooms and an advanced Flow Lab that Atmos says is focused on ensuring safety and reliability in the way its natural gas facilities are installed, monitored and maintained. Compressed air is used in the piping to simulate the pressures and situations Atmos technicians encounter in the field.

According to the company, the lab can be arranged with multiple scenarios using a variety of meters, regulators and other devices to train and certify its service technicians and field operators. It’s touted as the gas industry’s “finest example today of technical education and information transfer as well as a resource for testing the latest technologies and processes for the future.”

Finally, the Vaughan Center contains a service center from where technicians are dispatched to its 117,500 customers in North Texas communities.

Charles W. Vaughan
While the Vaughan Center is certainly the work of many individuals, there are three people singled out for playing instrumental roles in its development. First and foremost is Charles Vaughan, a native Texan who joined what was then Pioneer Natural Gas Company in 1957. In a career that literally began with typing reports and advanced to digging ditches and painting gas meters, Vaughan evolved with the company, earning promotions as he learned the nuances of the natural gas business.

By October 1983, the gas company was renamed Energas and spun off from parent Pioneer into an independent company with Vaughan its chairman, president and CEO. It was a position he held until 1997 when he was succeeded by well-known natural gas executive Robert W. Best whom Vaughan had handpicked to follow him. Today, Vaughan remains on the board of directors and chairs the executive committee; Best is executive chairman of the board, and Kim R. Cocklin is president and CEO.

Although Vaughan did not have direct involvement in the center that would later be named after him, not only would there have been no training center without him, but there probably wouldn’t be an Atmos Energy today either. Vaughan was a visionary who understood that to be successful in the industry, a gas company would have to diversify and grow. So, during the 1980s, he made history by going after Trans Louisiana Gas Company in what was the utility industry’s first-ever hostile takeover attempt.

Then followed the corporate move from Amarillo to Dallas in 1986, the acquisition of Western Kentucky Gas Company and on Oct. 1, 1988 the name change to Atmos Energy Corporation along with a new seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Other mergers followed including the acquisition of Greeley Gas Co., United Cities Gas Company, and finally Lone Star Gas, all of which increased Atmos’ size and geographical footprint. All the while, the company’s focus never left natural gas.

“Therein lies a lot of the great success of Atmos,” said Allen Chandler, senior instructor at the Vaughan Center.

“When virtually no other company would take the chance of acquiring other companies in that economy he had a vision that he wanted to grow the company and apply the culture that we live under today. He did that by expanding a little bit at a time. He was so innovative that no one could latch onto that vision and see where he was going,” said Chandler, who specializes in teaching instrumentation, measurement and control.

Chandler, who has been involved in technical training on natural gas for 20 years, said discussions about developing a comprehensive training facility began in 2004, soon after the acquisition of Lone Star Gas which effectively doubled the size of the company. That’s when Marvin L. Sweetin, who was then director of technical training and delivery and is now vice president of customer service, envisioned building upon several small training programs Atmos was already conducting for its employees in Grand Prairie, TX, Greeley, CO and Franklin, TN by combining them under one roof.

“We knew from the history of Atmos that training existed more like OJT (on the job), tailgate or vendor sessions and things of that nature,” Chandler said. “That meant the technical training they received was very limited and sporadic. Marvin’s vision was that if we’re here to serve our customers in multiple ways, then we have a better chance of success. We already had standards in place so our clients would know what they can expect and when to expect it.”

Everything But A Building

By 2007, planning for a new central facility entered the serious stage, now that an instructional team and curriculum has been assembled by gleaning the best practices of what the company already had. Then, once timing, financing and the necessary permissions were in hand, they needed to focus on a place for training for which Sweetin took responsibility. The plan also gained the crucial support of then-CEO and Chairman Bob Best, who believed in a corporate culture designed to bring out the best in others, and worked to eliminate any further barriers.

When it came time to affix a name to the facility, that was the easiest job of all. Explained Best at the opening ceremony: “Charles Vaughan has long been the spirit behind our dedication to safety, reliability and excellence to customer service.”

In making the new facility multifunctional, Atmos was able to address safety issues along with the new federally mandated operator qualification (OQ) program. The result of those many hours of planning that Sweetin led resulted in a simple but nevertheless critical concept.

“It’s a combination of offering a quality product in our technical training, but once here, we can also help with your OQ and we can keep you in safety compliance as well because safety is an integral part of our technical training,” Chandler explained. “That’s what has brought us to where we are today. Instead of being fragmented we’ve really bonded to where we have a training program that is excellent.”

Attendees have commented that they enjoy and learn from the hands-on experience, Chandler said.

“If we ask how we can improve our training, the answer on every single evaluation is more hands-on. We get very high marks on content. Sometimes they will suggest an advanced version of what we’ve taught them. It seems to just whet their appetite for more knowledge,” he said.

Atmos technicians generally enroll for a specific class at the Vaughan Center after receiving approval from their supervisor whether it is for a fundamental class or an opportunity to advance their career path.

Chandler and his staff of seven full-time instructors are strong advocates of cross-training. He said the core curriculum is arranged on an informal progression basis because technicians ultimately find themselves leaning toward one specialty or another. So, while they begin with meter reading and service construction, they can continue to expand in that direction. Or measurement instrumentation and control might appeal to them.

Because of legal implications the facility trains only Atmos technicians. Gas associations and universities are allowed to conduct classes at the Vaughan Center if room is available. As part of its community-based outreach program, the Vaughan Center recently held a training class for 105 local firefighters. They have also allowed a visitor from another gas utility to audit their classes, Chandler said.

Ironic Timing
It was with a certain irony that the Vaughan Center opened its doors at the same time that a series of unfortunate incidents involving gas utilities has led to unprecedented scrutiny of the gas industry and its safety practices.

The implications were not lost on Atmos, Chandler said.

“We had to be more astute than ever. It was giving us a message – not just within our company – that there is a training need here and multiple issues that must be addressed. We realized there were some avenues we needed to go to ensure we were covered from a safety perspective.

“We decided that if we touched on this in the past, now we were going to bear down on some of these safety issues along with aspects of pipeline integrity and how we approach those issues. It’s actually a perfect complement for the training program,” Chandler said.

In its first year, the Vaughan Canter provided 83,589 total hours of training – 77,889 in the classroom and 5,700 via e-Learning. That includes 44,571 hours of technical training, 22,189 in safety and 11,129 in employee development for an average of 17 hours per employee.

Despite the success of its initial year, Chandler acknowledged that the changing needs and requirements of gas utilities means the Vaughan Center must remain a work in progress.

“We’ve had phenomenal success so far, but we have also see opportunities to grow constantly. It’s an instructor’s dream. We got more than we ever asked for when we put this together. I’m still pinching myself that we see the reality of it,” Chandler said.

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