Beyond Profit: How Our Non-Profit eLearning Company Is Revolutionizing Upskilling

In an environment where many manufacturing companies for years have struggled to find entry level and mid-level skilled workers, a new approach was needed.

When people traditionally think about education and job training, people tend to get their education first and then apply for a job. This is a model followed by the traditional school and university or community college system.

“The traditional approach is what I call the supply-push model where we train as many people as we can and hope that they will then be hired by a company,” says Rod Jones, Managing Director of the Work Based Learning Consortium (WBLC). “The challenge has been that this had led to significant gaps for companies in manufacturing where they can’t find the workers they need. It’s been a problem that has been around for years.”

Jones notes that it often has led to employers trying to poach workers from other employers, which doesn’t solve the supply issue.

Employers can’t find the skilled help they need outside of a limited pool of workers and, in recent years, have faced the additional challenge of an aging workforce and reality of upcoming retirements.

At the same time, job seekers often find that they are unable to acquire the technical skills that makes them attractive to employer for in-demand positions.

Changing the Business Model for Upskilling and Reskilling Workers

WBLC has flipped this traditional education and training model upside down by working with employers to hire the employee first, and then provide the requisite training.
“We recognized that we needed to focus on the demand side and implement a demand-pull approach,” says Jones. “We work with industry associations and companies who are short of skilled workers and make them an active part of the process of building the skilled workforce they require. We also require that employers hire the candidates first and then train them.”

“We work with industry associations and companies (who become) an active part of the process of building the skilled workforce they require. Employers hire the candidates first and then train them.” – Rod Jones, Managing Director of the Work Based Learning Consortium

WBLC has placed a heavy emphasis on making sure people who are selected into a program and hired by a company are a good fit for the job that they are being hired for, and for which they will be trained. That means finding potential jobseekers who have the aptitudes and attitudes that will be a good fit for the relevant positions available.

“We’ve developed a demand-driven, employer engaged, competency based approach that has really proven to make a difference. It’s all based around seven principles that are core to everything we do.”

The seven principles include:

  1. Use objective, evidence-based competencies-based processes as the foundation for all selection, hiring, and training decisions and activities
  2. Be strongly industry-driven, with active employer engagement in defining competency-based job profiles/standards for each skilled job position and in delivering ‘on-the-job’ technical learning activities to achieve the defined technical learning outcomes
  3. Match job seekers with skilled jobs on the basis of the job-specific non-technical competencies required for job success, and provide competency gap coaching for those job seekers who are close to being a good match
  4. Be ‘demand-driven’ – build and/or deliver training programs to fill actual current job openings and require that employers hire Trainees as full-time, permanent employees at the start of their learning program (‘earn while they learn’) and/or nominate current employees as Trainees, to meet the company’s skills shortages
  5. Use a ‘blended learning’ method for technical training for job-specific technical knowledge and skills, which includes:
    • effective ‘on-boarding’ of Trainees and Company Trainers to the learning program
    • effective use of advanced learning technologies (e-Learning, VR/AI learning, micro-learning)
      • use e-Learning to carry the principal load for training but support as required with instructor-lead coaching on ‘hands-on’ skills e.g., use of hand and power tools;
      • closely align e-Learning ‘knowledge’ content with ‘practical skills’ learning on the shop floor
    • provide Trainees with structured experiential (on-the-job) learning guided by company job experts, who are well supported and guided in their training practices and have access to easy-to-use online tracking of Trainees’ progress
  6. Compensate employers for their key role in providing the Trainee with ‘on-the-job’ learning – subject to the Trainee’s successfully achievement of all required job-specific technical learning outcomes
  7. Use independent, valid, and reliable certification methods (competencies-based) to confirm Trainees’ successful mastery of all required technical learning outcomes.

“There are two controlling pieces in our approach,” adds Jones. “One is to set the job standard, meaning defining the technical learning outcomes for the position. This will drive the learning activity for our training program. The second factor is at the front end to make sure the people coming into the program are a good fit.”

A Proven Approach

WBLC has been able to demonstrate that this approach to training and reskilling employees is fast. Training is accomplished in less than half the time of traditional methods and it has proven to be reliable, with a 90% success rate. Finally, it also has proven to be very cost efficient, cutting in half the traditional costs of obtaining the skilled employees that companies need.

“Employers are very happy with our 90% success rate given that many hired had not worked in manufacturing before.” – Rod Jones, Managing Director of the Work Based Learning Consortium

WBLC has worked with more than 80 different companies, helping them to find more than 800 trainees. More than 90% of the trainees who have completed their training achieved WBLC certification.

“We’re proud of our success rate that 90% of trainees achieved their certification,” says Jones. “Many were young people (18-29), who had a high-school diploma and had not worked in manufacturing before. By having a job standard and a certification process, we’ve developed work-based learning programs that lays out a training process that brings trainees along and provides benchmarks that allow them to demonstrate they have learned the competencies set out in the job standard. It’s proven to be a winning model for employers, their trainees, the industry itself, and the government in supporting industry to increase productivity and prosperity.”

Contact Rod Jones to learn more!

Training in the “Ubiquitous yet Unknown” Sign Industry

We are surrounded by signs. They are on stores, on buildings, on cars, on walls, and on the floor. Entire cars, buses and trucks can be wrapped and converted into mobile signs. They can identify buildings, objects and people, attract customers, convey safety information, or provide directional information. Inside … outside, signs play a very important function in our daily lives.

“Signs are everywhere but they also are ‘ubiquitous yet unknown'” – Karin Eaton, Executive Director of the Sign Association of Canada.

“Signs are everywhere but, as it has been said in the industry, they are also ‘ubiquitous yet unknown’,” says Karin Eaton, Executive Director of the Sign Association of Canada. “Despite being everywhere, very few people think about what goes into sign making. There are so many elements – architecture and design, engineering, manufacturing and installation. There is no one way to get into the sign industry, but often you are born into a sign family, stumble upon it through marriage, or you learn graphic design in school, start working in a sign shop and then move onto other areas.”

Hiring Young Talent and Reskilling Workers

In an evolving industry, there is a desire to attract young talent as well as reskilling people who are interested in career changes.

“Education has always been one of the key strategic areas of importance for us,” adds Eaton. “One of the ironies of the pandemic is that elearning and new technologies, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have become more prevalent and accepted.”

Carl Weger, President and CEO of Sleek Signs and past President of the Sign Association of Canada notes that a lot of the education that is done in the industry is on-the-job training and some of it is manufacturer-based.

Creating the Graphics Installation Technician Program

Work Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) is developing a selection and learning program for the Graphics Installation Technician with the Sign Association of Canada. Graphic Installers often are involved in the application of wraps to cars and buses. Working with industry experts, WBLC has constructed a blended elearning program that also includes instructor-led coaching on hands-on skills as well as a train the technical trainer element. WBLC will screen and assess job candidates, will develop and deliver training for the new hires or employees that could benefit from upskilling, and is developing a certification program to certify all of the graduates.

The Graphics Installation Technician program has several elements:

  • Graphic signage – trainees need to be knowledgeable about the most important types of signs and graphic installations.
  • Work Documents – they have to be able to read and interpret all these different work documents.
  • Math – important to have math skills for measurement, alignment, proportions.
  • Programs – trainees need to be knowledgeable about the types of machines and programs used in graphical installations. This element teaches what these different programs can do.
  • Programs and Machines – understand the roles of machines such as a graphic plotter and flatbed CNC machines.
  • Materials and installation surfaces – Understanding the different materials, such as vinyl that goes into a graphic install.
  • Learning the characteristics of materials, read the manufacturer product, understand the surface and then choose the materials.
  • And, demonstrating efficient use of measurement and tools used in that job.
  • Participants will be asked to do a series of five projects – three installs and two removals.

The Graphics Technician Installation Technician program is funded by Future Skills Centre, a pan-Canadian initiative dedicated to helping Canadians gain the skills needed to thrive in a changing labour market. This is the first initiative with the Sign Association of Canada and is being undertaken to test and confirm their industry’s interest in specific training programs and national certification.

The Value of Certification

“The certification element has a number of advantages. It establishes a baseline of quality, validates the career choice for employees, increases interest from potential applicants to the sector and, over time, increases the capability of company employees, while also increasing retention rates,” says Rod Jones, Managing Director of WBLC. “The certification provides an independent, valid and reliable means of affirming that the trainee has actually acquired the competency, knowledge and skills that they need to do the work. This is beneficial both for the trainee and the industry as a whole.”

A National Program

“This program should result in producing a person with a broader set of skills and accreditation, which should be appealing to many in this industry” – Carl Weger, President and CEO of Sleek Signs and past President of the Sign Association of Canada

The program will begin training people in the late spring and summer 2023 with at least nine companies, located across Canada from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, involved in the program launch.

“As a national association, we felt it was really important to have national representation in this pilot,” says Eaton. “It was really important for us to select companies across Canada of different sizes, so that we have a better understanding whether you are a big company or small, more remote or in a crowded urban setting, we discover the effectiveness of the program. This is really exciting. My hope is that it will lead to elearning in other areas, too, down the road.

Rod Jones of the WBLC says he and his team also are enjoying working on this initiative.

“We’re very pleased to be working with the Sign Association of Canada on our first pan-Canadian initiative,” adds Jones. “Together, we can help train new or upskill employees for Sign Association of Canada member companies. We are using the same, proven methodologies that we’ve established with other industries, but it’s rewarding to teach different technical knowledge and skills to a new group of people.”

Carl Weger adds that there are likely more than 10,000 organizations nationwide, in almost every large and small community across the country.

“This program should result in producing a person with a broader set of skills and accreditation, which should be appealing to many in this industry,” adds Weger.

Artificial Intelligence Helps CNC Trainees Learn Technical Language

In a world-first initiative, the Work Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) has partnered with artificial intelligence (AI) conversation company Virtro Technology to introduce an AI-powered simulation program. This program assists CNC machinists in learning technical language verbally and helps to prepare them for work on a busy manufacturing shop floor.

This program utilizes simulations that teach trainees how to use approximately 70 technical terms in contextual conversations with managers and co-workers. In these innovative simulations, AI virtual humans play the roles managers and co-workers, and the trainees learn how to have fluent conversations using these technical terms. The simulations build upon powerful elearning tools that are at the core of CNC Machinist training.

“WBLC’s technical language simulations using artificial intelligence are changing the way that trainees learn in this sector.”

“WBLC’s technical language simulations using artificial intelligence are changing the way that trainees learn in this sector,” says Rod Jones, Managing Director of WBLC. “Our partnership with Virtro has allowed us to create a program that is immersive and interactive, giving trainees an experiential learning experience.”

The introduction of this AI-powered simulation into WBLC’s elearning was funded by Future Skills Centre, a pan-Canadian initiative dedicated to helping Canadians gain the skills needed to thrive in a changing labour market.

How It Works

The Workplace Technical Language Simulations program is geared towards both new and immigrant CNC machinists and operators. The comprehensive program of simulations takes learners from high levels of support in initial conversations to workplace-ready conversations with managers and co-workers as they discuss work projects and solve job problems.

Each simulation was designed and developed with seasoned industry experts collaborating with the technical team to closely mirror real conversations that trainees will encounter as they start work.

“People need to practice very specific work-related conversations, and this tool allows for that.”

“People need to practice very specific work-related conversations, and this tool allows for that,” says Jordan Brighton, CEO of Virtro. “The AI-powered simulations offer a unique opportunity for trainees to interact with virtual humans and practice their conversations as many times as they need to become competent.”

Strong Participant Feedback

Participant feedback continues to be very positive with one trainee machinist stating, “I found the simulations to be incredibly useful in helping me improve my communication skills on the shop floor. The fact that I could practice as many times as I needed was invaluable, and the AI-powered virtual humans made the simulations feel very real.”

Another said, “I was impressed by the level of interactivity that the simulations offered. I was able to practice my conversations in a safe and controlled environment, which gave me the confidence I needed to use the technical language on the job.”

“I was able to practice my conversations in a safe and controlled environment.”

After one of the Workplace Technical Language Simulation Programs had been completed and 12 people had graduated, it was discovered that nine of the 12 graduates had continued to use the system and practice their conversational skills.

“I’ve been in education for close to 30 years and the typical reaction, after completing a course, is frequently ‘Whew, I got my certificate and I’m out of here’. That was not the case with this program. We saw for the next two weeks, people were going back in and practicing. That told me more than anything else, that we hit the nail on the head,” adds Brighton.

With a high success rate among graduates, the program has the potential to revolutionize the way CNC machinists learn technical language.

“We’re thrilled to have partnered with WBLC to develop a program that has the potential to significantly impact productivity and communication in the workplace,” says Brighton. “We believe that this program is just the beginning, and we’re excited to see how AI-powered simulations can continue to transform the way that people learn and practice new skills.”

Focusing on Business Needs Leads to Highly Effective Remote Assessment Tool

Innovative Canadian Camera System for Remote Assessment of Trainees

Tom was excited, but the pressure was on. After weeks of learning, it all came down to this final assessment of his skills as a participant in a CNC Machinist upskilling program. Conversing with his Assessor, Tom confidently worked to complete a series of tasks.

Watching and monitoring Tom’s steps carefully was his Work Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) Assessor, but something was different. The person overseeing the test wasn’t standing beside Tom on the shop floor. Instead, his Assessor was speaking with him remotely, watching Tom’s every move via an innovative, newly developed remote assessment tool.

With potentially hundreds for CNC Machinists being trained in different plants across the country, Work-Based Learning Consortium knew that it needed to have a cost-effective telepresence assessment solution that gives assessors the ability to remotely conduct final trainee assessments. Using remote assessment rather than having to incur the cost and time of traveling to various cities, a WBLC assessor can evaluate multiple trainees on the same day, regardless of their location, without having to be physically present at different client worksites. The development of this innovative technology solution was funded by Future Skills Centre, a pan-Canadian initiative dedicated to helping Canadians gain the skills needed to thrive in a changing labour market.

No Commercially Available Solution Found

“When we first started the process of creating our remote assessment tool, I thought we’d find a commercially available solution that would meet our requirements,” says Rick Stomphorst, Employer Relations Manager at Work Based Learning Consortium. “We engaged a third-party vendor to conduct some preliminary research and make some recommendations. We looked at wearable technology and even some augmented reality devices, but as we worked through it, each had its drawbacks. We discovered that there is a gap in the marketplace. We had some very specific requirements, and, in the end, we had to design something ourselves.”

  • WBLC knew that some companies had policies that prevented recording on premises, but they were fine if material was live streamed, without recording. Other requirements included:
    The remote assessment solution needed to be hands-free
  • It must be easily deployable and not require any training in how to set it up
  • The video must be sufficiently clear and flexible for the Assessor to judge competency
  • The audio must be bi-directional and functional in a noisy factory environment
  • It had to be a standalone unit, capable of a run time of 1.5 to 4 hours, not require any power cables, and have its own self-contained Internet access (could not rely on access to the customer’s wireless network)
  • It had to be capable of being shipped to a customer in a suitcase sized case
  • Other desires: to be expandable (future proof), rigorous and safety related, and a spare unit needed to be available for 48-hour exchange support if the first unit malfunctioned

Focus on Core Business Functions

“We went through several iterations and quickly realized that we had to pull back the layers to get away from all of the whiz-bang, cool features of technology and focus on what are the core business functions that we needed to solve,” adds Stomphorst. “We also could not afford to have to spend time training people on setup or how to use the software.”
WBLC knew that there were three identifiable physical areas within a roughly 12-foot radius that the trainee would need to move around during the CNC Machinist assessment. This meant there couldn’t be one single fixed view to monitor the trainees. A camera was required that could pan back and forth between three or four different places. They needed a camera that could plan, tilt, and zoom.

“We couldn’t have a camera on a helmet because that, in itself, presented challenges”

“We couldn’t have a camera on a helmet because that, in itself, presented challenges. We also discovered that wearables, such as glasses, wasn’t viable. A lot of solutions weren’t safety rated and how would you wear glasses over regular glasses? We also considered security cameras but found that their resolution wasn’t sufficient enough for our needs. So we had to pivot away from those options,” says Stomphorst.

Sorting Out The Pieces

After some trial and error, WBLC chose an Insta360 Link camera that was a 4K pan, tilt and zoom webcam. It could zoom in from a distance of 8 feet and Assessors could read very granular text on the screen of a CNC machine. They had discovered that many other cameras had difficulty reading black text on a white screen and some tended to blur it out. One other benefit of the Insta360 camera was that it supports pre-set locations so that, as the trainee moved about, the camera would adjust instantly to a set viewpoint with the click of a single of a button.

They chose a Window-based tablet because Windows proved to be a general-purpose operating system that was broadly supported and a lot of products could connect with it. The tablet also came with cellular connectivity, which was crucial because they couldn’t rely on using a customer’s Wi-Fi network. During testing, they discovered that the tablet’s internal battery wouldn’t last long enough on its own, so they added an external battery that provided six hours of power.

One of the final hurdles to overcome was audio because of the noisy factory environment. The trainee had to be able to hear the assessor and the assessor had to hear the trainee. Using an onboard speaker and microphone on the tablet was ineffective in a noisy production environment. Earbuds were a problem because they may fall out, have wires, could get lost, and there would be sanitation issues when they come back. They also didn’t want cover both ears of the trainee on the shop floor for the safety factor reasons and often no-one in CNC machine shops wore full ear protection. It’s important that the trainee be able to hear people around them.

The solution was a wireless, one ear mono-cup headset with Bluetooth and a built-in microphone that is used in the trucking industry. Speaking and hearing was quite clear. It also is remarkably simple to use with one-button connectivity and the battery lasted close to 24 hours.

Mounting Components on a Rugged Frame

Everything (excluding the headset) was mounted securely on a special ruggedized frame that could be attached to a camera tripod. The tripod has reflective tape for visibility purposes on the shop floor. The unit ships essentially in three parts – it’s the frame, which houses the tablet and camera, and quickly connects to a tripod. The process to hook them together takes about two to three minutes. The third element is the headset.

“We’ve had remarkable success with our remote assessment tool. Most of the control is managed by the Assessor. All that is required on the shop floor is initial setup of the tripod and turning the unit on,” adds Stomphorst. “Reviews of our assessment tool have been very positive.”

“I can (remotely) see the coordinates on the machine, what’s happening while the doors on the CNC machine are open”

“It’s been great,” says Pavel Wegrzyn, a monitor/coach with WBLC who conducts remote assessments and played a key role in the tool’s development. “I can (remotely) see the coordinates on the machine, what’s happening while the doors on the CNC machine are open and easily follow the trainee as they move about. We can obtain a clear view inside the CNC machine even with the camera roughly 8 feet away from the machine. It’s easy to move the view of the camera and the ability to have three or four pre-set points has been very helpful. It’s been a fun process, working with Rick and the team to develop this solution.”