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

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 eyepiece 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.

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