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Mechanical trades ratchet up training, grow tech toolbox

Mechanical trades ratchet up training,
grow tech toolbox

by ROB McMANAMY | Aug 19, 2015

In the eternal battle to win the hearts and minds of public and private construction owners, the building trades unions have long known that in order to stay competitive, they have to present themselves as more skilled, more efficient, and more safety-conscious than their nonunion counterparts. Today, they also know that market pressures demand they be even more tech-savvy than the other guy.

With that in mind, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) has really ratcheted up the tech component of its training in recent years, incorporating virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), virtual weld stations, digital media, tracking analytics and more. This month, at its annual training conference in Ann Arbor, MI -- put on by the International Training Fund in a program jointly operated by UA and contractor partners like MCAA -- the 125-year-old member organization welcomed a record 1,860 instructors from across the U.S. for lessons on how best to teach even more technologies to members back home. This year's curriculum included instruction in virtual design and construction, robotic layout devices, 3D laser scanning, BIM, Revit, plus drones and DAQRI smart helmets.

"This was our fourth straight year of growth, and we had 446 first-time attendees," noted a pleased Christopher Haslinger, UA Director of Training. "Our faculty was made up of another 300 or so Master Instructors and industry representatives, and our 'Industry Day' was also well-attended, drawing some 280 owners, contractors and other local management." 

This month, BuiltWorlds had the chance to spend additional time with Haslinger, who earlier this year was appointed to serve as Director of the North American Building Trades Apprenticeship and Training Committee.

WHAT IS DRIVING THE UNITED ASSOCIATION'S TECHNOLOGY INITIATIVES?

The industry is undergoing change at a more rapid pace than we have ever seen in the past. As new products are coming into place, technology is not only being utilized on the jobsites, but in many cases, it is required to be incorporated as part of the project by the end users before a contractor can even bid on the project. We have taken the approach that we need to anticipate what tools the industry is moving towards, what our contractors and end-users are finding useful and in some cases cost-efficient, and to stay on top of what our manufacturers are developing to understand what technology will be changing workflow processes. We have worked very hard to be the craft that is leading the way on incorporating new technology into our training programs. 

Pop-up books? Training materials now incorporate 3D models in AR to help students better grasp design concepts.

Pop-up books? Training materials now incorporate 3D models in AR to help students better grasp design concepts.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRAINING NOW AND 10 YEARS AGO?

In the past, I believe you had more time to review new equipment and technology coming into the market that was going to be incorporated onto a jobsite. The general thought many people had was that changes were more of a design type of software, or project management software change, and that they "wouldn’t really affect the tradesmen in the field". Nowadays, it is not only software, such as CAD and BIM, but there is increased technology being used, like 3-D Laser Scanning and Robotic Layout devices, as well as the introduction of highly advanced automated welding equipment and other devices for the field. With all that being said, we have to stay focused on the training resources needed to incorporate all of these new products and processes. We do not have the luxury of a year or two leeway to prepare material for the market. It is needed much quicker now.  

HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE RESPONSE FROM MEMBERSHIP CHANGE SINCE TRAINING BEGAN? 

One of the things that we have seen is that the apprentices who are coming into our trade are very technology oriented. The use of mobile phones, tablets and other technology is more commonplace than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Our apprentices coming into our trade are very “wired” into technology and they embrace using the training resources that are available. We incorporated AR and VR into our training programs and have seen it become a recruiting tool for millennials.  

It's not just the training tools but also our methods that are changing with the demographic. Our online Instructor Resource Library (IRL) usage has gone from being used by roughly 150 instructors in 2013 to currently being used by approximately 500 instructors a week. 

YOUR ANN ARBOR CONFERENCE IS MAINLY FOR TRAINERS. HOW HAS THE GROWTH OF THIS EVENT REFLECTED THE GROWTH OF TECH USE IN MECHANICAL CONTRACTING? 

Our Training Program really relies on input that we get directly from the industry, as well as the input we get from our mechanical contractor partners. We have increased our collaboration with MCAA to find out directly what types of new technology and/or equipment is being utilized on jobsites or projects. We work on providing the “Train the Trainer” format of classes so that the local union training programs can send their instructors to receive the training at our programs. The way it is designed is they are then prepared to take what they have learned and teach it back at the local union level. When we receive input from industry and our contractors, we can then work on developing the training programs that are needed to prepare the workforce in the field.

One example that I can think of is the use of iPads in the field by mechanical contractors. Projects are being done now without the use of multiple sets of paper prints and drawings. What used to be a set of prints sent out to the jobsite is now a cloud-based BIM model that is being sent out to the field to an individual’s iPad, dramatically speeding up the communication of this material from the office to the jobsite. We developed and are now teaching a class incorporating the utilization of iPads and the appropriate software to make sure the workforce is prepared. 

WHAT NEW TECH TOOLS ARE ON THE NEAR AND LONG TERM HORIZONS THAT YOUR TRAINERS ARE LEARNING NOW SO THAT THEY CAN TEACH TOMORROW?

New training app was just released this spring.

New training app was just released this spring.

Over the last three years, we have really worked on incorporating new technology. Lately, we have developed mobile training apps to allow instructors and others to access material in a variety of ways. We have launched training resources that use AR where an individual can hold their phone or tablet over some of our textbooks and view a video that displays how to utilize a certain piece of equipment or a 3-D model of a component display, which allows the user to interact with it. We have even seen some movement where AR is being studied for possible use in the field for installation or service work. Within the last year, we have put into place training modules that are using VR simulators to teach HVACR Troubleshooting and Crane Signaling. They have a “gaming-type feel” and are very popular. We have staff that attends technology conferences and expo’s to stay on top of what is coming out. It is their responsibility to develop ways in which we can incorporate them into our training programs. 

For more on UA's training program, click here.

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