The Electrical Worker online
July 2016

Apprentice Training Moves into Virtual Realm
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It was a cold, rainy May morning outside the Washington, D.C., Local 26 training center in Lanham, Maryland. But inside, Romuel Buenio put on a pair of goggles and was transported to a jobsite littered with hazards, problems and potentially deadly electrical issues.

The first-year apprentice never left the classroom. But with cameras from the television show "Innovations" on hand, he and others saw where electrical training continues to head. With the help of a virtual reality headset called Oculus Rift, Buenio felt like he was standing on an overhang without a railing while being asked to diagnose a variety of problems at the jobsite.

"Oh man, it felt like I was there," he said. "It's very realistic. It actually put me in the room."

Buenio and other apprentices likely will be using Oculus Rift and other similar programs during the next year on a regular basis. So will wiremen going through advanced training.

"It's all about putting someone in the environment," said Mike deSimon, president of Mosaic Learning, which is the technology delivery provider for the Electrical Training Alliance and developed the electrical training content used in Oculus Rift. "Before, we were able to show you videos. But when you stand there and you have that experience, the back of your mind and your subconscious say, 'I was there' and 'I remember it.'"

"Innovations" informs viewers about recent breakthroughs in science, health, business and industry, making the simulator on display that morning a perfect subject. The show is hosted by veteran actor Ed Begley Jr.

The episode on the advanced training methods used by the Alliance, an educational partnership between the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association for more than 70 years, will be shown sometime between July and September on the Discovery Channel. The air date will be posted on when it is announced.

The electrical training used in Oculus Rift probably will be available in training centers in 2017.

"We just kind of hoped in the past that with PowerPoint slides and some other things, students would pick up the standard stuff," deSimon said. "Now, we're pulling them by the collar into the environment and telling them to look at this and engage with us.

"When they do, they say, 'Wow. It's cool, it's neat,' and they retain it. I can say 'Look at the filter, and in between us comes a 3-D model of a filter."

The Alliance and IBEW training centers have been implementing virtual reality training for much of this decade, but technology continues to rapidly improve. Programs expected to be used by apprentices in the upcoming year are so advanced they bear little resemblance to what was being used even a few years ago.

Mosaic Learning is working with the Alliance to ensure apprentices have a more realistic view of what they will encounter in the field, Alliance Executive Director Todd Stafford said. "Innovations" will highlight that and demonstrate how IBEW training methods remain the best in the electrical business.

"What we are building will remain at the forefront of the building trades," Stafford said. "No one has what our industry has today and we will keep it that way."

Palmer Hickman, the Alliance's director of code and safety curriculum and training, said the simulators' roles in training will increase.

"Liability is a concern," said Hickman, an inside wireman and member of Philadelphia Local 98. "We really have to recreate the workplace experience so they can practice what they are expected to do and become more productive when they hit the jobsite."

That isn't the only reason to develop the technology. Would-be apprentices growing up in the digital era expect it, Hickman said. Making it available now and continuing to improve it should attract better-quality applicants at a time the industry needs them. The first wave of baby boom retirements is well underway and many areas are reporting shortages of wiremen.

Hickman noted it's a little different than when he was going through his apprenticeship in late 1970s. Back then, black-and-white film was among the most technologically advanced part of training. Things have come a long way.

"We're just scratching the surface on what we're going to see next," Hickman said.

"It's a virtual environment that allows the student to practice what they learn in a safe environment. They can see the effects of electrical hazards without actually being exposed to them."

Hickman, Stafford and Local 26 Training Director Rhett Roe all were interviewed for the show. Stafford said he views "Innovations" as another tool to spread the word on the value of apprenticeship, especially when there is a high demand for qualified applicants.

Apprentices graduate with little or no debt, unlike many college students. Stafford noted that the IBEW and NECA contractors are expected to spend about $180 million on apprenticeship education this year. Not many people realize it also can be a steppingstone to college, he said.

"People don't know that they have the ability to take an apprenticeship course, to earn while they learn and graduate with it," he said. "A lot of times, they can get an associate degree. The pathway to being an electrician is a great pathway. But those that want to move along to college have the opportunity to move forward from here."

Stafford knows from experience. He's a member of Baton Rouge, La., Local 995, where he completed his apprenticeship before earning an electrical engineering degree from Louisiana State University.

"Our primary recruiting in the IBEW and NECA is still by word of mouth," Stafford said. "You know someone in the industry and we send them over to the training center and send them through the application process.

"That's good in the sense that people who come to us understand who we are for the most part. But at the same time, we're not reaching one-hundredth of the population. Let's present ourselves to everybody."

Local 26's training center has been recognized on a big stage before. President Obama visited it in 2010 and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez visited last year.

"Innovations" gave it another chance to show off to people not familiar with it, Roe said. Like Stafford, he hopes it highlights the quality of education the apprentices receive, especially to viewers around the nation's capital.

"A lot of people don't know what we do," he said. "Unions are often misrepresented. This is another eye-opening experience to another set of people that probably don't realize what we're all about. It's very, very rewarding to see."

The episode also will report on the Alliance's modern curriculum, in which apprentices learn both via the internet and with the traditional classroom instructor.

"Blended learning bridges the gap between learning in the classroom and really what the student has come to expect today and what they're used to," Hickman said. "We give them a virtual type environment with game type activity."

The simulators expected to be featured on "Innovations" also will be helpful to experienced electrical workers, Hickman said. They can study a replica of a jobsite before visiting it. That should make them more efficient once they arrive and also lead to safer working conditions.

"It's a great way to deliver information," he said.

Getting a chance to experience the simulator left Buenio wanting to do it again.

"I could look around and see what was around me," he said. "I wanted to touch something."

"Innovations" is an independently produced show that also airs on Fox Business and RFD-TV in addition to Discovery.

The IBEW Media Department compiled a video to that goes behind the scenes during the shooting of the episode and tells more about the advanced training methods.

3D Training Video


Washington, D.C., Local 26 Training Director Rhett Roe, left, prepares for an interview with cameraman Brian Averill. The interview is part of an episode of 'Innovations' that will highlight the Electrical Training Alliance's cutting-edge training methods.


Apprentices practice in preparation for a motor control test at the Washington, D.C., Local 26 training center.


Averill shoots video of pre-apprentice Maureena Nureni in a Local 26 training classroom.


Local 26 apprentice Romuel Buenio used goggles to simulate working on a jobsite filled with safety issues.