A new hire, a simulation technician for an undergraduate simulation program, attended a manikin vendor’s class on programming scenarios. She had already been working for many years in various IT roles, so learning the technology used in simulation was an exciting opportunity. The course was attended by over 15 nursing and EMT educators; they were almost salivating at the possibility of one day getting “their own” technician. These educators had become keenly aware of the demands placed on them in addition to the courses they taught and related responsibilities, and now they were learning a relatively new technology. Before leaving, the simulation technician received several polite invitations to come work for their programs; in the same breath of the invitation was the expression of frustration that they did not have the funds or administrative will to further staff the simulation facility.
Fortunately, the role of the simulation operations specialist (OS) has evolved quite a bit. Technicians can now earn professional certification in their field (CHSOS) and enjoy key leadership’s appreciation of the importance of the role—so the “will” now exists. Salaries for the OS roles has improved but not enough to keep their OSs more than two or three years (generally speaking). When an operations specialist leaves their job, they take their skills, knowledge and experience with them, often leaving a void in the program.
So, how can simulation program leadership keep their highly qualified operations specialists from moving on to another simulation job? Time. Time is the most valuable commodity for anyone, but it is also relatively cheap to distribute that commodity in a way that provides value to the simulation program, the operations specialist, and of course, leadership. Even if the budget doesn’t allow for a career-worthy salary, professional development and the time to do it provides a lot of value and satisfaction to the operations staff. So, how can leadership enrich the operations specialists’ jobs?
This may seem strange for what often passes as an entry-level job for many simulation technicians. Providing protected time gives staff the breathing room, during the work week to read articles, simulation books, perhaps write blog posts or engage in discussions with other simulation professionals on organizational forums. How does this benefit the simulation program? If the OS is not squandering their time playing online games or working a cross-word puzzle, then he/she can learn about new ideas, innovations, develop relationships with other OSs at other simulation programs. We live in a connected community, so the time we protect can encourage a connection with the greater simulation community. These connections produce opportunities for mentoring, whether your OS is mentored, or is mentoring, either provides an opportunity for professional growth.
So many times, educators are invited to attend on-campus training provided by vendors for new simulation equipment, but the simulation technician is not invited. Such courses are usually limited to a dozen or less, so leadership makes sure that the educators are first in line. Hard to believe. The hope is that the faculty “buy-in” to simulation by attending such courses, and for some, it is the nudge that they need. However, it can also harden faculty resolve to not adopt simulation. Simulation program leadership would do well to adopt a policy to train superusers first, and they will pass their knowledge on to educators and staff who want to learn more. It doesn’t take long for an OS or simulation technician to become discouraged when they are left out of valuable training. To avoid frustrating staff, they should be included in training opportunities and be valued as a resource for busy educators who have no desire to dig into the technology itself, but rather want their students to learn. The educators can then focus their expertise on scenario design and participant assessment/evaluation.
Time to Learn, Time to Teach
Too often faculty show up in the control room and communicate their intentions about the simulation activity—sometimes as it is being facilitated. This is a poor practice and only demonstrates the need for consumers of the simulation resources to learn about best practices, and to understand the role of the operations specialist in assisting subject-matter experts (faculty). A simulation technician should be extended the courtesy of having time to learn about the objectives of a scenario, and perhaps even participate in the development of the activity. Such an intimate knowledge of the scenario and expectations of the educator will improve everyone’s experience.
Some programs have policies and procedures that prescribe the appropriate amount of lead time and knowledge needed before a scenario can be validated as ready for implementation. Many programs require at least a week or two to develop a scenario concept into a finished scenario. Other programs recognize that a large undergraduate program with dozens if not hundreds of educators may overwhelm a small staff with constant preparation and validation of new scenarios. Consequently, at least one program required that all scenario design requests not be fulfilled until the following term.
Many operations specialists find themselves becoming teachers. Whether the OS teaches new faculty and staff about the simulation technologies and operational policies, or they are called upon to oversee and teach students about the various skills prescribed in the curriculum. All of this takes time, and without that time it is difficult for anyone to be prepared to engage in such activities. Preparation time should be built into everyone’s schedule, including the operations specialists.
With the development of the Certified Healthcare Simulation Operations Specialist exam(s), subject-matter experts in operations and technology insisted that some knowledge of instructional design concepts be assessed, even for those who are not expected, or allowed, to “teach.” The realization was that technicians could better support educators if they understood the theories behind the activities being planned. Ultimately, an experienced OS will teach—probably informally, but nevertheless they will teach learners, for example, how to use virtualized scenarios on PCs, teach new staff about the operations of the center, and perhaps even write policies and procedures recommendations. An understanding of educational concepts will improve their chances for success.
The time has come where entry-level technicians and experienced operations specialists know they must plan for their careers. Up until recently, there were not many opportunities to nurture their careers to be anything more than a low-level technician. Not all operations specialists or technicians are fresh out of school, more and more specialists are older and transitioning into another phase of their lives. Because there are not many formal pathways for earning a degree to prepare for the role of an operations specialist, and those that do exist are limited to a certificate or associates degree. For operations specialists that have been working in that role for a while, the idea that the CHSOS requires a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) is offensive. They are already doing the work, why go into debt to learn what they have already learned? However, for the future of the role to become a professional pathway to a fulfilling career, young adults may not learn everything on the job. Courses and degrees, just as provided for other professions (such as accountants, educators and technologists) will be necessary to give a clear pathway and evidence of expertise. Combined with experience over time, the professionalization of the simulation technician can be realized.