Date started: August 2021
Groups served: Adult job seekers, high school CTE students
Number served: 292 Unique VTF Trainees across 11 sites
Simulations completed: 3,674
Main use case: Skills training for job readiness (work towards apprenticeship)
Industry focus: Electrical Construction
Founded in 2003, TRIO Electric is an electrical design, service, and construction company that seeks to improve the lives of its customers, its community, and its employees. It’s common practice for electrical employers to bring on green apprentices and skill them up until they become full-fledged electricians. However, TRIO takes this process a step further, running an in-house training program to prepare new recruits for the rigors of the job site and make them more effective on day one! However, with seasoned electricians retiring every year, the number of job openings to fill and classes to teach exceeds the amount of skilled personnel that TRIO (or anyone!) has available. Partnering with Transfr allows TRIO to scale their training programs (both in-house and at local high schools and CTE centers), safely and effectively, without hiring additional instructors, expanding facilities, or spending excessively on consumable materials.
Electricity runs everything around us. It’s one of the most vital forces in our modern world and everything that moves needs it — and that could all go away. Not tomorrow, not all at once, but the people who keep the infrastructure you and the entire world depend on running are disappearing. Retirement is the main cause, but a lack of interest in the trades overall has contributed to a rise in open electrician jobs across the country.
No one knows this better than TRIO Electric. For almost 20 years, they’ve been serving their customers, employees, and community, wiring up commercial and industrial building projects of all kinds — schools, hospitals, and more. But like the electrical construction industry as a whole, TRIO is staring down a hiring crisis.
“In order to grow, we need electricians,” says Beau Pollock, TRIO’s CEO. “And I can’t find them. So, one of the ways we serve the community is by offering vocational training to both high school students who most likely won’t go to college, and for adults who are looking for reskilling or upskilling that will lead to a better career.”
This is a bold move on TRIO’s part, not just bringing on green electrician apprentices, but developing an in-house electrician’s apprentice program that equips new recruits with the skills they’ll need to be effective on a job site from day one. While it helps solve their hiring problem, this very successful program creates challenges that have no easy solutions.
For starters, every class needs an instructor, and there are only so many electricians in any area with the skills necessary to train others. Equally important, an experienced electrician needs to have the right attitude, mindset, and skills to teach others — that’s where many training programs run into challenges as well:
“Great electricians don’t always make great instructors,” says Beau. “Plus, most seasoned electricians aren’t willing to leave the work environment to teach; they’d rather be out on the job.”
Faced with these challenges, TRIO’s training program seemed doomed to limitations it couldn’t overcome with the resources at its disposal — then Beau met Transfr CEO Bharani Rajakumar.
Beau and the TRIO team had been exploring VR as a training add-on for some time before Beau met Bharani. In fact, many of their training modules had been turned into e-learning modules with video content to help amplify the effectiveness of human instructors and deliver content in a consistent manner. VR would take that to the next level.
“I had interviewed several different virtual reality firms and was impressed with Transfr’s user interface.” Beau recounts. “But ultimately, it came down to a simple test: I let my kid try on a bunch of the VR headsets I’d been sent. Within a few minutes on the Transfr headset, he was changing the oil on a car using the oil change simulation. I knew if he could handle it, it could work for many adults.”
Hands-on simulations using Transfr would allow TRIO to reach more students with the same facilities and instructors they already had. The key would be bolstering their already-stellar curriculum with VR simulations.
“What sets TRIO apart is that our curriculum is designed for industry, by industry,” explains Sam Chiarella, Curriculum Development Lead at TRIO. “We outlined the best practices for the most tasks that are done in the field and combined them with what we knew we needed from safe and productive electricians, which became e-learning modules for our training program. We extracted some of the most important lessons and those became the basis for the Transfr simulations.”
This was a lengthy and detailed process facilitated by curriculum leads at TRIO and subject matter experts (SMEs) and instructional designers at Transfr. (Hear their stories on Upward, the Transfr Podcast.) The tasks needed to be analyzed and broken down into their smallest components, with a focus on which skills could be taught virtually, without holding the actual physical tools or using real world materials — while still effectively building muscle memory in learners.
“The pressure was on when I first was asked to work on this project, because it’s dealing with something that’s traditionally taught with physical, hands-on materials that they are actually touching,” says Justin Thompson, Instructional Designer at TRIO. “We began with task analysis documents from Transfr. We had to make sure that the way the simulations were being taught mapped to how electricians actually perform the work in the field.”
The sim creation process was extremely collaborative, with a lot of back and forth between Transfr and TRIO to build the highest-quality simulations. The result is a package of simulations that students and instructors are excited about.
“Having simulations built with input from many SMEs [Subject Matter Experts] makes everything better,” says Edgar Anguilu, an instructor at TRIO. “Because you’ve got different people bringing in their perspectives and experiences.”
Using simulated training for a trade as hands-on as electrical construction might seem counterintuitive, but the simulations have been a big hit with both instructors and students. Instructors at TRIO get to empower students with more repetitions of core skills without having to split their attention between multiple groups of students. Students get the ability to progress through content as quickly as they wish, reviewing skills and relying on Transfr’s AI coach to help them master essential techniques they’ll use on job sites.
“The VR simulations teach the students how to follow vital processes from beginning to end,” says Andrea Calvo, Education Program Director at TRIO. “They learn the names of every tool they’ll be using, how to handle them, the various materials, and safety measures.”
Meanwhile, at nearby Alief Independent School District’s Center for Advanced Careers, high school students are immersed in the same program TRIO’s adult learners experience in a state-of-the-art career and technical education center. The “classrooms” at this sterling facility are modeled after the job sites students will encounter in the real world, with an eye towards helping students enter the workforce after high school.
“Students work in laboratories that mimic work environments for the real world, training to earn industry-standard certifications that can help them enter employment right after high school,” explains Jennifer Baker, Director of Career and Technical Education at the Center for Advanced Careers, explains. “In 2019, TRIO approached me and offered to provide the curriculum, help train the students, with the possibility of hiring them right out of high school. This was my dream! And now we’ve enhanced the classroom experience with the VR headsets.”
Students from TRIO’s training program and other locations are excited about the opportunities that VR simulations provide: Proceeding at their own pace, performing unlimited repetitions of key skills, as well as the chance to practice without their classmates’ eyes on them the whole time.
“You get to track your own knowledge,” says student Lauren Tanner. “It felt good getting a gold medal at the end of the course and moving on to the next lesson!”
The ability to work independently also paid off huge for TRIO apprentice Michael Cox, who was able to jump into the simulations and complete them and the TRIO training program at an accelerated pace, speeding his time from green recruit to paid, working electrician’s apprentice.
“The VR training was very effective for me, personally,” Michael says. “It was very informative and precise and got into really good detail as well — not just in terms of the physical side of seeing what you’ll be doing, but also the underlying knowledge you need in the field.”
Benefits of EC Training with Transfer
Effective:Trainees with no prior EC knowledge can effectively execute task learned via VR in real world
Safer:No danger form live electricity, no sharp tools, heights, or other hazards
Uses no consumable matrials (wire, conduit, etc)or expensive tools
Training for almost every skilled trade carries with it some degree of risk: Sharp and heavy tools, heat and fire, and — for electrical construction, of course — electricity. Now, while electrician training programs across the generations have successfully managed to teach necessary skills safely, knowing that you’re training in a VR environment with zero risk of injury can go a long way towards setting a student’s mind at ease when beginning their EC journey.
In addition to reducing risk, the new sims also reduce waste: Electrical Construction training requires large quantities of wire, conduit, and other one-time use (consumable) materials. Until the advent of VR, this seemed like an unavoidable expense — if you wanted to teach how to bend conduit, you were going to have a lot of students bending a lot of conduit. Sure, some of it might actually eventually go to use, but now with Transfr, there’s a better way. When students use VR simulations to bend conduit, pull wires, or practice any other tasks that usually cost consumables, they’re mastering the basic skill and developing muscle memory, but without using up materials.
And it really works, reports the team at TRIO:
“We actually put some of our colleagues who’ve never been in the field through the bending simulation,” Sam recounts. “And they were able to do it on the very first try.”
Edgar adds: “We’re talking about people who’ve been doing office work for a long time and never held a tool!”
The ability to get a basic understanding of a skill that used to take a high volume of consumables is a game changer for Electrical Construction and countless other industries.
Tackling the electrician shortage in the US will be a huge undertaking and require the right combination of human and technological solutions. That being said, the crisis is solvable, and programs like TRIO’s, enhanced with hands-on simulations from Transfr, are helping to make a brighter future possible for people from all walks of life.
“Students who come out of the TRIO program actually pick up the trade a lot quicker than other people out in the field,” says Coby Self, VP of Business Development for Buildforce, a Houston-based marketplace that matches construction professionals with construction companies. “It gives them a huge leg up and will help out the industry as a whole to have all these new people joining the workforce who have a level of knowledge that green apprentices don’t have. It’s unheard of!”
A career as an electrician offers not just job security, but a built-in pathway towards growth and development over time. Whether someone wants to eventually run their own business or just move up as an individual contributor within a company like TRIO, electricians have the power to choose their own path. The only constants are lifelong learning and the willingness to grow and take on new challenges.
“When we approach students with the VR component of the TRIO program, it really entices them. Not only do they get to learn a trade, but they get to do it with some really cool toys,” Beau says. “I have yet to find a program that provides the wraparound services that we do. The VR component allows someone to really learn the skills and get the repetitions that they need to be able to produce results in the field, making them highly sought after employees.”
Want to hear more about TRIO and the future of Electrical Construction? Check out this podcast episode with TRIO CEO Beau Pollock, Transfr CEO Bharani Rajakumar, joined by Eric Seleznow from Jobs for the Future.