Joel Levitt Managementcolumn

What can we do about the lack of finding qualified technicians?

Feb. 6, 2012
Virtual reality training may help entice a younger generation

Get out of your shop and get yourself to a trade show. Right now, sign up for a show of interest. There are both local ones and national ones.

I recommend you pick one with the best educational program.

Even if times are tight you still should try to visit a show every year or two. There will be all kinds of ideas, new products and people to meet.

The investment made in attending one trade show, like an investment in the right products and services, is well worth it. 

Booth Display

I went to a local show, the Maintenance Trade Show, sponsored by Maintenance Shows of America out of St. Louis a short time ago saw the future of trade education. 

The Lincoln Electric Welding booth had what looked just like one of their welders. Back in my early days I did a bit of welding so I stopped at the booth to say hello.

The machine the company had on display wasn’t a real welder at all, it was a virtual welder.

Of what possible use is this? It is great if you damage your car in a video game, just wheel over the virtual welder and let it to town.

Actually the virtual welder is designed for trade schools to teach welding in a fun and addictive way. More on that later.

Common Problem

Before I get into this device (as cool as it is), I want to talk about two problems common to many types of maintenance.

One is the inability to find qualified technicians at a reasonable (for your area) pay rate. The other is the lack of kids going into the trades and their ability to work with their hands and their brains.

My colleague, Joel Leonard, calls this the maintenance crisis.

I heard a rumor that a community got some stimulus funds to repair some bridges but couldn’t find welders to do the work. The rumor has it that a Chinese contractor took the job.

I’m as paranoid as the next guy, but if this is true, then the crisis is already upon us.

Trade Interest

A few years back, one of my son’s best friends took a summer job with his uncle as an electrician’s helper. Two or three years later, by the time he graduated high school, my son’s friend was a very qualified home electrician.

By graduation the uncle had the boy estimating jobs, acquiring materials and, in some cases, doing the whole job himself, with only a look-see by the uncle to insure the work was up to code.

Now a senior in college, my son’s friend is working part-time as a programmer for an insurance company.  He seems to want no further part of the trades, even though he can make more money as an electrician.

He also seems resistant to the argument that programming can be outsourced, but being an electrician cannot.

Fun Learning

Somehow we have to make the trades more interesting and "fun." Lincoln Electric seems to understand that and has created its new training product - the Lincoln VRTEX 360.

A representative from Lincoln Electric Welding showed me around the virtual welder. He was clearly an old-time welder, which made the demonstration more interesting.

Here’s how the product operates: You put on the standard-looking welding helmet and once the eye piece is adjusted you can see the scene. I was on top of a building doing straight structural butt welding on 1/4" plate.

I picked up the welding gun, and when I looked down, I could see my hand with the gun (or stick, depending on what you choose). 

The welding was exactly as I remembered it, except for the lack of smell and no little burning sparks.

The machine can add guidelines to the picture to show you where the gun should be and how fast it should go.

The machine rates your performance and gives you a score.

It also allows you to see in detail where you need more work, and will allow you to test the virtual weld.

You can set up different welding scenarios - construction, factory, etc.; various positions - vertical, pipe welding, upside down, etc.; different geometries, different joints and materials, etc.

The system can keep detailed training records on all the students.

Virtual Training

Iowa State University Professor Richard Stone studied virtual training of this type.

"The results demonstrated that students trained using 50 percent virtual reality had training outcomes that surpassed those of traditionally trained students across four distinctive weld qualifications," he reported. "In addition, the VR (virtual reality) group demonstrated significantly higher levels of team interaction, which lead to increased team-based learning. 

"Lastly, the material cost impact of the VR group was significantly less than that of the TT (technical training) group even though both schools operated over a full two-week period." 

None of this is new. The airlines have used realistic simulators (at $10 million a pop) for a long time now.

You can even learn to fly on the famous Microsoft Flight Simulator. This simulator is celebrating its 25th birthday.

Simulators are also used to train ship captains, train engineers, nuclear power plant technicians and Army troops.

Specific Learning

Simulators are great for training specific skills, developing specific judgment on dealing with scenarios - failures of different parts of the airplane, for example, and for creating muscle memory that all experts have in their skill area. That is among the training objectives of the welding simulator.

If you’ve ever seen a child playing a video game, you can get an impression of the potential impact of the virtual type of training.

The welding simulation is addictive with multiple levels. Each weld is scored from 1 to 100.

With dozens of options, each could be a level, "operators" really take to the simulation. They don’t want to stop.

How is that for education?