Understanding the Progression of Expertise is Critical to Improving Training Programs

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Chad Johnson's picture
Manager of Training Advisory Services HSI

As Manager of Training Advisory Services for HSI Industrial Skills, Chad oversees large-scale training projects for clients in the power generation industry, including developing all-inclusive...

  • Member since 2022
  • 11 items added with 5,451 views
  • Jun 28, 2022

An effective training program is a key component of any energy company. It keeps employees safe by making sure they understand how to correctly operate and maintain equipment. It keeps the grid reliable by ensuring equipment is maintained and employee mistakes are minimized.

While effective training is an investment, it does pay off. How can power companies demonstrate training benefits?

Effective training has three clear benefits.

First, workers improve their skills. They can complete more tasks, making them more productive. As they advance through training, they can perform more complex tasks, enhancing their value to the organization.

Second, training increases workers’ competence. Not only can they complete more tasks, but they also do it with fewer mistakes. Organizations have a better, more reliable product or service, less downtime, and fewer injuries.

Third, training often meets compliance requirements. When organizations are required to comply with federal, state, or local regulations, training can help them stay compliant and avoid fines.

Training also provides some less obvious benefits. For instance, workers who are skilled and competent require less supervision. When managers spend less time managing workers, they have more time for developing strategies to work more efficiently. Managers who trust their employees to do their jobs effectively can focus on ways to streamline processes and reduce costs.

Many organizations are struggling with worker retention. One way to retain workers is by providing effective training. According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), 94% of employees would stay if employers invested in long-term learning. Ongoing training to increase worker expertise contributes to job satisfaction, and more satisfied workers are less likely to look for greener pastures.

As workers build expertise through training, organizations develop resources to fill vacancies by promoting internally. Developing talented workers makes replacing managers and supervisors easier. Workers who see a clear career progression are more likely to stay with an organization.

To achieve these objectives, organizations need to build their training program around the tasks workers perform. Each worker’s training plan should be based on what they do.

As workers gain experience and knowledge, they can perform more independently, and subsequently, perform more advanced tasks. Their training should progress as their skills do.

A key element in a structured training plan is employee progression planning. The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition can be applied to training progression by identifying five stages through which employees can progress:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced beginner
  3. Competent worker
  4. Proficient worker
  5. Expert

Correlating training progression with job progression provides a framework for workers’ expected performance level and identifies the support needed at each given level. Let’s take a closer look at each stage.


Training for novices starts at the beginning – instructors break down the job list into simple pieces and parts a beginner can recognize without having the necessary skills. These workers are new and inexperienced, so the focus is on instructing them in what to do.

At the novice stage, workers understand how, but not necessarily why.

Training can be provided online or in the classroom. Online training gives everyone a consistent foundation – they get the same information in the same manner before moving to the next level of training.

Novice training begins with teaching the individual tasks, following instructions and examples. Workers need context to move to the next level.

Advanced Beginner

As the novice acquires experience in coping with real situations and begins to understand relevant context, they can respond to more complex situations. After practicing examples, the novice can start to recognize new aspects and contribute more to their role.

At the advanced beginner stage, learning is still carried out in a step-by-step frame of mind with the worker following instructions and examples. They still require direction from their supervisor; however, they begin to gain some understanding of the context of their role and see how their actions impact other areas.

Competent Worker

With more experience, the advanced beginner should recognize more relevant elements. These elements can become overwhelming because the worker does not yet have a sense of what’s important in any particular situation.

To cope with overload at the competent stage, workers need to know what is important and what isn’t in a given situation. Now, the competent worker needs to use both rules and reasoning processes. However, reasoning processes are more complicated than the procedures and shortcuts novices use.

Competent workers in a complex system, such as the power grid, must decide for themselves what plan or perspective to adopt in each situation.

In the novice and advanced beginner stages, if a  worker is not successful completing a task, they must refer to a procedure for guidance and determine if any steps were missed or performed incorrectly. However, a competent worker is often responsible for making their own decisions and may not always have a procedure to fall back on.

In general, if a worker is incapable of making decisions on their own, they will never progress beyond the competence level. At this level, workers focus on learning an overall perspective, which is required for further progress. Training can provide rules and guidelines for understanding the big picture, but the competent worker must understand the implications on their own.

Proficient Worker

As the competent worker becomes more comfortable with tasks or responsibilities, they are less likely to fall back into the step-by-step ways of the novice. At this stage, they understand why as well as how, which puts them closer to becoming a proficient worker.

For proficiency to develop, workers need to make sense of a variety of situations. At this stage, workers see goals and important aspects.

A complex system has fewer ways of determining what is going on than ways of reacting. The proficient worker sees and understands important aspects of the situation – now they must use their knowledge and experience to decide what to do.

Proficient workers are gaining confidence in their skills and knowledge. They continue to need encouragement from supervisors, but don’t require the same level of oversight and instruction as novices and advanced beginners.

The proficient worker relies on their expertise and the principles and guidelines learned through training to make an informed decision. Most importantly, the proficient worker also understands when it is appropriate to think on their own and when a procedure must be followed without question.


The expert immediately recognizes what needs to be done and how to do it. An expert can get a split-second sense of a situation and act upon it instinctively, where a proficient worker would hesitate and be unable to decide on a course of action.

This experience does not mean the expert always knows the right answer because a complex system scenario doesn’t always have one correct answer. Instead, the expert knows what matters and can make an informed decision.

An expert has the deep knowledge and experience needed to act appropriately in completely new situations. A seasoned control room operator is expected to respond to unique situations and synthesize an appropriate response, whether it’s to cut power to a single load or shut down an entire power plant.

From a human performance perspective, while experts can immediately react, it is more important for them to determine whether they should.

At the expert stage, workers are independent. They are emerging as peer leaders and candidates for advancement.

By focusing on progression training to move workers from novice to expert, they have a clear career development plan. Not only do organizations benefit from the  advantages of worker training, they can also boost employee retention and reduce management workload.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 28, 2022

How much do you think the expert needs to be reminded of the lower level tasks? I imagine part of the challenge is you want the value of a 'reminder' training to reinforce topics, but you also don't want to waste time or make those experts feel insulted in thinking they need to re-learn something they already know. 

Chad Johnson's picture
Chad Johnson on Jun 29, 2022

Great comment, Matt. This is why your ongoing training program needs to be as carefully thought out as the program for new hires. Refresher training should be targeted so it reaches the employees who need it, and there should be a measurable benefit from it. Some tasks may need to be refreshed more often than others, and some experts may need to retain certain skills while letting others lapse. A carefully designed training program can help with this. Once training is properly targeted, it is still important to acknowledge that individual employees may have different levels of skills and knowledge for each task in question. Periodic assessments can be used to focus training efforts where they are needed and avoid assigning unnecessary training topics.

Nathan Boutwell's picture
Nathan Boutwell on Sep 3, 2022

Great to see a post realted to the Dryefus model, realted to learning we like to use the experts to help develop performance support material for learners in the earlier stages. The more we can draw the tacit knowledge from the experts into our training and work planning the stronger our organizations become. 

Chad Johnson's picture
Thank Chad for the Post!
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