Southwest Gas Corporation saving time and improving security with online assessments

Background

Founded in 1931, Southwest Gas Corporation purchases, distributes and transports natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in the southwestern United States. The company’s more than 2,400 employees serve more than 2 million customers in Arizona, Nevada and portions of California.

Administering over 50,000 tests a year to employees and contractors, Southwest Gas employees and contractors are assessed to ensure "repeatable, verifiable and defensible" results. Southwest Gas focuses on protecting people and property; the assessment must ensure that those in the field are equipped to do just that through comprehensive training and assessment.

Training and Certifying Employees

Southwest Gas Corporation uses Questionmark's assessment management system to test its employees and contractors on construction, operations of gas pipelines and operations. To ensure all employees are trained and qualified, the company’s training department combines classroom and field training. Training is mandatory and can take place as little as once every five years or as often as once every six months, depending on the task. Course topics include field welding, pipe joining, customer service and many others. Whether training takes the form of a one-day class, a 12-week program, or something in between, it almost always involves a combination of classroom and field testing in which employees and contractors must physically implement what they are learning in the classroom. These evaluations take place in formalized classrooms, in the field or within the boundaries of their Emergency Training Facilities which are re-creations of small towns experiencing real-life emergency situations.

High-Stakes Tests

Employees go through training several times a year and must pass their examinations with a minimum score of 80 percent to be qualified to perform their jobs. Southwest Gas Corporation has between 300 to 400 tests with anywhere between 10 to 60 questions per test. “We have a testing professional that goes through the required training materials and authors the questions along with our subject matter experts, who are all internal employees, for accuracy,” says Jocelyne Segura, Analyst – Training and Development at Southwest Gas Corporation. “We are using principles of criterion referenced testing and our operations manual requirements in putting together our newer tests. We train for competency to ensure that our employees and contractors have complete comprehension of the procedures they are being trained on.” Classroom tests are primarily multiple choice, but the company also incorporates fill-in-the-blank, drag-and-drop and pull-down list type questions. They also use Hands-on Testing (Practical testing) to ensure the employee and/or contractor can apply the book knowledge in real life applications.

Saving Time, Improving Security

According to Segura, the company administers over 50,000 tests a year. Before deploying Questionmark in 2007, Southwest Gas Corporation devoted a great deal of time and resources to creating and managing manual tests.

“We deployed Questionmark because the amount of work and time that was being devoted to manually creating tests—making sure they were always locked up, manually corrected and saved on spreadsheets to be analyzed and then shredded—was neither cost nor time efficient,” says Segura. Ensuring the security of the paper assessments was a major concern for the company. When paper was being used, the company suspected that contractors could get access to the hard copy of the test questions and answers. Since the tests were in hard-copy form it was impossible to randomize questions, Segura said, and it took a long time to publish different versions of the same exam.

“We needed to address these problems, and one of the first steps we took was to turn to Questionmark,” Segura explains. Questionmark -- together with the Questionmark Secure, which locks down participants’ desktops to eliminate task switching -- provides an array of security options to protect the integrity of the company’s tests. “We now have reliable software that ensures us that our high-stakes tests are safe and secure,” says Segura. “We’re able to randomize questions, prevent tests from being copied and score assessments immediately.”

Improving Assessment Quality

Segura observes that Questionmark not only has helped the company secure their high stakes tests and save time and money; it has also helped trainers create stronger assessments. “Aside from testing the employees/contractors and ensuring test security, Questionmark also allows us to appraise the test questions to ensure they are worded correctly and can be validated,” Segura adds. “It also allows students to evaluate the company’s Technical Instructors and Qualifiers.  When assessments are being developed, all the Company’s Technical Instructors have an opportunity to review them for accuracy and legitimacy prior to them being launched.