Builders have long believed hands-on education and in-person coaching are the best ways to teach the skilled trades because of the physical approach to learning the necessary job skills. It wasn’t until COVID-19 emerged and social distancing was the norm that companies realized a construction-based education could be delivered successfully in a virtual format.
Whether for a first-timer or an industry veteran looking to learn a new skill, several tech-infused instruction organizations have developed virtual curriculum options that could be critical to the future of skilled trades training and recruitment.
The Home Builders Institute, a national leader for career training in residential construction, believes blended learning using various resources will help workers reach their full potential and make it easier to teach and train topics in the trades.
“Lectures are not effective for the typical construction worker, who prefers to learn by watching and doing,” says Bethany Shean, HBI’s vice president of education, in her recent IBSx session. “Using a variety of methods in your learning will help you meet the needs of more workers, quicker.”
When using blended learning, 73% of educators report an increase in learner engagement, says Shean. She suggests providing agile content on demand for upskilling during slow times, like in the winter, in the evenings, or on weekends.
“When you add tech-based content to a learning solution and blend it in to the entire package, you don’t need to stop work to train employees, they can learn anytime, anywhere,” she says.
The pandemic changed how HBI educates. “We turned our instructors, who are normally teaching 100% hands on, into in-camera talents, all by using their cellphone,” says Shean, noting that shorter lessons via video-based microlearning allow for better content absorption. “There’s scientific proof that learning in smaller segments—typically 10 minutes or less—is 17% more effective with transfer to the job.”
Other tech startups, such as M.T. Copeland, have emerged with online video courses taught by experienced professionals in the building trades. Founder and CEO Gabe Jewell, formerly a supervising creative producer at MasterClass, launched the venture in April 2020.
“Our sole purpose is to become the go-to resource for topics such as construction management, house framing, pre-apprentice carpentry, and on-the-job safety in service of opening career pathways for those in the industry,” says Lauren Michaels, M.T. Copeland’s head of community marketing. “Jordan Smith, a well-known builder in Austin, is one of our lead educators and has courses out on foundational topics such as reading blueprints and construction math.”
Courses, broken up into short lessons, are $75 each. Video lessons are accompanied by downloadable materials, like blueprints, tips, and exercises, to give users real-world practice.
“We see people who learned to read blueprints but haven’t had to do it for eight years, and they’re now in a new position where they want to brush up,” says Jewell.
Graphics and Animations
Construction Instruction is also committed to continuous learning. Justin Wilson, partner at the company along with Gord Cooke and Mark LaLiberte, teaches in-person lessons that aim to sharpen a builder’s building science skills.
Before the pandemic and during their time on the road teaching, the team developed simple animations that provided step-by-step instructions for various building-related topics. When students asked to keep them for future use, the team launched an app in 2010. Still free today, the app—with a user base just short of 100,000, according to Wilson—has a learning center with videos, articles, and animations designed for industry professionals on various topics.
An added benefit to the animations is they are free of any language barriers. The animations also bode well for product manufacturers, where they have found success in digitizing their installation guides.
With such a tech-based focus before the pandemic, the firm successfully pivoted its live classes at its experience center in Denver to web-based training sessions. “We built a television studio in the building and have two full-time employees and all the equipment to render mixed media, animation, and film,” says Wilson. He believes small groups will again participate in physical learning at the center, where the team has built a room with state-of-the-art ventilation and developed a social distancing model like schools. But, they also hope to continue to have virtual options available.
Virtual Reality and 3D Models
For years, industries such as medical, aviation, and the military have used technology-infused learning to help train and upskill its workers, with virtual reality as a key player.
Simulated environments allow a user to repeatedly practice until a concept is mastered. Voice, tone, body movement, and biometric feedback can track and assess the learner’s interactions, and real-time assessment and criticism can offer remediation and opportunities to try again. “It requires the learner to be interactive with the content in the same way they would interact with the tools and equipment,” says Shean. “They can also do it over and over without wasting materials.”
During IBSx, she gave the example of a worker fixing a toilet through a VR simulation. With goggles and equipment to track the learner’s body movement, the user would have to reach for the turn-off valve or bend down to clean up the water that’s leaking.
HBI shared a simpler 3D model interface where users can “walk, jog, and run” through a procedure. Users start by walking, or training with full instructions. Then, they jog with a few hints, and eventually graduate to the assessment, or run, with no hints.
“A hands-on, practical approach will always be the prominent solution for training and construction,” says Ed Brady, HBI president and CEO, during the IBSx session. “But, blended learning will help recruit, train, and retain our future workforce.”