This week we’ve unleashed our Q&A on Ben Thomas, a man with over 25 years of experience in the underground storage tank industry. Ben got his start after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, working as an intern when the industry was in its infancy. In the years since, Ben became one of the “founding fathers” of modern UST training, making great strides in helping new employees learn the ropes through in-person and online training. Ben was kind enough to answer a few questions about his UST online training courses. Take it away, Ben…
1. Tell us a little about your UST background.
In 1986 I got a job inspecting tank removals in Vermont. Federal tank regulations were still a few years away so it was a very frontier-style of environmental protection. But I got some great field experience before I moved to Alaska to complete my college degree. Weirdly, it was the Exxon Valdez in 1989 that got me into a permanent tanks job; everyone in the Fairbanks office responded to the big spill and I stayed behind. As a college intern, I started working the fledgling UST program. I helped guide Alaska through the big 1998 upgrade deadline and decided to start my own business in Washington state in 2002.
2. When did you begin teaching / creating UST courses?
I actually taught the country’s first state-approved UST operator training course in 2003 in Oregon, which was the first state to adopt UST training rules. While in Alaska, I organized some operator training classes, which ended up being the part of the job I liked better than enforcement or regulation writing. For some reason, I enjoy helping UST operators improve their operations and prevent leaks, so training seemed like a natural fit.
3. How did you first hear about online training?
I don’t recall exactly, but I thought many of the online courses I found around 2007 were terrible; the disembodied, monotone voice droning on about environmental regulations – total snoozers! I wanted to create courses for trainees that were relevant, interesting, and maybe a little off-beat to keep everyone’s attention.
4. What prompted you to begin writing online training courses?
Anyone who does the travel-training circuit knows how exhausting it can be, going from city to city; plus try rounding up operators to talk tanks for 8 hours. The whole “brick and mortar” live classroom model is very inefficient. But the problem was that the UST industry hadn’t embraced online learning back then so there were some basic aversions to it that I had to overcome. The tools for creating content online were available, but there weren’t a lot of roadmaps for training experts to convert live PowerPoint to automated online presentations. I set out to do something different: make it affordable and high-impact.
5. How do your colleagues feel about online training?
The feedback has been strong so far, and I hope to keep it that way. We try to incorporate suggestions and always work to make the best UST courses out there. Once people understand the convenience of online training, it’s an easy sell, but most importantly, the user experience has to be top-notch in order for the content to stick.
6. Do you feel that online training in the UST industry / sector is a good companion to classroom education?
Obviously, the best scenario is training at a real live UST site where you can open up lids and explain things. Next best is the classroom but it’s very hard to get people to commit to a full day of sitting. If money were no object I’d promote live training for basics, and do custom or refresher online content afterwards. Plus, online is cheaper. Based on feedback I’ve received, many of our customers feel online is nearly as good as in-person.
7. Do you plan to add more online training courses to your current library of courses?
Absolutely. We’re moving into more state markets plus we have a few surprises up our sleeves. Stay tuned for details.
8. Do you think online training will figure positively in the education of future tank operators, regulators, and inspectors?
Slowly but surely, online training is gaining traction. Pros include convenience, consistency, and accessibility. Cons can include not being site specific enough and not having a live person to talk to afterwards. We’ve tackled both of those obstacles with our customers, who we encourage to call and visit with us. Vendors who don’t offer an excellent user interface will keep the impression of online negativity going until inspectors require vendors to do more than just read a bunch of tank regulations. Our goal isn’t simply to certify someone. We want folks to change how they manage their tank systems. Like they say, good training pays, bad training costs.
Want to Know More?
If you’re interested to know more about Ben Thomas and his Underground Storage Tank’s courses, please be sure to visit and check out his webshop.