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Taking Training to the Next Level

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Virtual training solutions can help the facilities management industry close the skills gap and create well-rounded employees.

By Amelia Bridgford

Skilled labor has historically been a field defined by apprenticeship. New hires would traditionally spend months — sometimes years — working under the guidance of experienced tradespeople, learning by doing, and benefitting from the wisdom of an expert’s many years in the field. Only once they had earned the trust of their mentor would they be considered qualified to execute a job on their own.

This method of training has long been considered the gold standard and has certainly stood the test of time. But a modern era plagued by staffing shortages, supply chain issues, an ever-widening skills gap and a global pandemic has employers searching for modern “upskilling” solutions. To wit: on-the-job training, gone virtual.

A Remote Solution

Doug Donovan, Interplay Learning

Doug Donovan is the Founder and CEO of Interplay Learning, an Austin-based software company on the forefront of online and virtual reality (VR) training programs for essential skilled trades (plumbers, HVAC, electrical, solar and facilities maintenance technicians). Offering everything from online simulations accessible from a computer or tablet to fully immersive VR experiences, Interplay’s training software claims to make skills training faster and more scalable than ever before. “What we’ve done is mimic in-the-field training by using a simulated environment in virtual reality,” Donovan explained. With training simulations so lifelike they often provoke awe, Interplay and its competitors aim to revolutionize the sector, streamlining onboarding and skills training for thousands of employees worldwide.

The major benefits of this style of training? “Quite simply, our software condenses the learning time for technical skill sets,” Donovan said, taking this stage of upskilling employees from years to mere weeks, in some cases. And if that sounds impressive for a single employee, imagine it at scale. Interplay’s software boasts the ability to train “hundreds of workers to be ready at the same time,” even if those workers are scattered across the globe.

“It’s phenomenal, particularly in the facilities maintenance space, because of our cross-domain capabilities,” Donovan continued. “What’s unique about FM workers is that they have to be trained in so many specialties — HVAC, electrical, plumbing — and that is incredibly challenging. So being presented with a solution that represents all of those trades in one place is really powerful.”

But can an online or VR training program really measure up to the physical presence of a human expert, especially when it comes to identifying mistakes or assessing the progress of a trainee? “It’s not so much about comparing them one-to-one … a proper program probably has a little bit of both, frankly,” Donovan said. “This is just an incredibly efficient way to acquire skills, and it’s engaging. An excellent complement to apprenticeship, when possible.”

From Idea to Implementation

Matt Race, Mandel Group

Matt Race, VP of Facilities and Capital at Mandel Group, which owns, operates and maintains 32 luxury apartment complexes in four states, knows what it’s like to implement a virtual training solution. His team partnered with Interplay to train 55 service techs of various levels through an online virtual curriculum. “The VR training program is great for our entry-level techs who have the drive to grow professionally,” Race said. “It allows us to provide them with the basic knowledge they need to have confidence going into hands-on jobs.”

Setting up the training was as simple as auditing the company’s technical equipment (laptops, tablets) and ensuring adequate internet access. Mandel Group also opted to pilot the program with a cross-section of the team prior to launch. “In doing this, we have buy-in from the senior techs, and ensure that we’re receiving the ‘right’ training tracks,” Race explained, nimbly avoiding some of the most common pitfalls of implementing this type of technology.

He also cautioned that identifying the trajectory of the training at the outset is crucial to the program’s success. “FMs need to understand where they are starting and what their endgame is,” Race said. “For us, we wanted to have a curriculum that elevates each tech through every level.”

The feedback so far has been positive, and Race reported that most trainees “love” the program. But he echoed Donovan’s sentiments about the enduring value of human experience in a training setting. “I’m a firm believer in a hybrid model,” Race said. “The hands-on training validates what you learn virtually.”

Let’s face it: facilities management has a skilled-labor problem. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly 8 million skilled-labor jobs were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, compounding a deficit of experienced tradespeople in the workforce that had been steadily growing for years. And with an estimated 2 million additional essential skilled labor positions opening by 2028, employers are faced with difficult dilemmas.

How can they eliminate the barrier to entry for skilled positions? How can they attract and engage the next generation of tradespeople when so many industries have transitioned to an appealing work-from-home lifestyle? And what is the best way to provide the training and hands-on experience necessary for these careers when they are already short-handed?

Virtual training seeks to address these issues and keep our facilities running smoothly in the modern era. When implemented in concert with the wisdom and skills of experienced tradespeople, it’s a solution that “virtually” guarantees success.

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