Strategic Approach to Training Development Makes a Difference

How do you consistently develop highly effective training for disparate industries, particularly when the culture, employee base, and focus can be so different across industries?

Executives at Worked Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) point to a proven approach — embrace a highly disciplined and strategic practice in training development. WBLC has developed proven training programs across a of range of industries – CNC Machinist training for the manufacturing industry, entry level training for the wind turbine industry, and graphic installation technician training for the sign industry, to name a few.

“Many companies have always done on-the-job training but typically it is done in an informal, unstructured way,” explains Rod Jones, Managing Director of WBLC. “I call the process ‘osmosis’ – exposing trainees to educational content and hope enough of it sinks in to be successful.”

Organizations typically do not pre-determine exactly what trainees need to learn and trainees aren’t always measured at the conclusion of training – elements that WBLC views as important to highly effective training success.

WBLC’s Layered Approach to Training Development

“Identifying the job standard, meaning defining what the technical learning outcomes are for a given position, is a crucial first step before we even start developing the training content,” says Jones.

Technical learning outcomes are the skills and knowledge that a person is required to learn and demonstrate in order to be assessed successful in a given job.

“Technical learning outcomes also are a highly effective benchmark for measuring a trainee’s success,” adds Jones. “Have they successfully learned the competencies taught in the training?”

Getting Started – Subject Matter Expert (SME) Involvement is Critical

Who is better to identify the skills and knowledge required than a panel of subject matter experts (SME)? This is an essential first step.

During these scripted conversations, WBLC works very carefully with the subject matter experts to identify the necessary information, which are the backbones upon which WBLC’s training is developed.

“These sessions are invaluable, but they also follow a very detailed, methodical process,” says Reema Duggal, a lead for the virtual learning initiatives with WBLC. “People don’t generally talk at this level of detail. One of the keys to our success is the skill that our team has in working with these experts to extract all of the information that is needed.”

Once captured and the information is assembled, WBLC then designs and builds the course content, thinking about the best way to communicate the information.

Hybrid Upskilling Approach

WBLC has developed a hybrid approach to upskilling, which has e-Learning and on-the-job training at the core and layering in other elements to deliver a blended and comprehensive approach. WBLC’s learning programs typically include interactive e-learning, e-instructor led virtual classroom, train the technical trainer, on-the-job training, shop floor hands-on assignments to reinforce the e-learning, technical language training, monitor coaching and certification.

The employer is also a key participant by providing a technical trainer who conducts job instruction training and coaching for trainees, supported with practical exercises that reinforce the theorical e-Learning content that the trainees have just completed. Additionally, WBLC offers a train-the-trainer program to ensure a positive and robust experience for the trainees.

All About Achieving Results

WBLC has had strong success creating a range of upskilling programs. It received strong, positive feedback for both the recently developed graphic installation technician training program as well as the entry level program for the wind turbine industry. One of its longest running programs designed to develop CNC machinists continues to have expanded enrolment.

“We work very hard at creating high-end e-Learning,” adds Duggal. “Good e-Learning has always been welcome. We want people to learn and master skills at a specific level, regardless of what industry they’re in. That’s really what we’re after – a solid understanding of each topic and we’ve received very good feedback about our e-Learning programs along the way.”

A funder’s comment on WBLC’s unique approach
‘Frankly, we have never encountered another company, large, small or otherwise, that does as full and proper job of defining learning outcomes for a skilled job position at the outset as WBLC does.’

Wind Turbine Blade Repair Training Reaches New Heights

Wind Turbines dot the landscape across Canada, standing 85 metres (280 feet) tall. That means a lot of the repair and maintenance involves people working high in the air to service these clean energy sources. Training is an important element and Work-Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) has created an introductory Wind Turbine Blade Repair program to assist in training new or recent hires. Funding for WBLC was provided by the Future Skills Centre.

Unknown to Most – Blades Require Repairs

“It’s a pretty severe environment for wind turbines,” says Aaron Miller, President of Composites Canada, which provides composite material to companies in many industries across Canada. “These blades don’t look like they’re doing much, lazily trundling away but, just given their sheer size, the tip speed can reach 100+ mph (160+ km/h), sometimes double that. So, you get a lot of erosion (caused by) anything that happens to be in the air (striking the spinning blades). You also get ice damage falling from an adjacent blade, among other things.”

“In many industries, you can bring the product inside for a repair. This is extremely impractical with wind turbine blades  – Aaron Miller, President of Composites Canada

Frank Sabatier, Wind Technical Manager at Mistras Group Inc., agrees with the importance of doing a lot of work out in the field.

“Many companies don’t want to take the blades down unless they absolutely have to because it takes a five-figure sum to take them down and put them back up, involving cranes and other things,” says Sabatier, who works with technicians both in the U.S. and Canada. “Add in the logistical challenges with road access, platforms, and much more to overcome.”

Skilled Workers Required to Repair Blades

Training new workers and keeping technicians up to speed is an ongoing challenge and comes in several forms.

Sabatier says there are some courses offered by technical colleges, but a large portion of the training is done directly by companies using their own training curriculum. Training is also offered by original equipment manufacturers (OEMS) who build the wind turbines.

“Most big OEMs are located in the U.S., so if a technician were to start working for Siemens or GE, they would receive their training in the U.S., because Canada just doesn’t have the facilities,” says Sabatier.

Training in composite materials is an area that Miller believes could use some assistance.

“There’s not a lot of training content or training material for the composite industry. Composites pop up in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways,” says Composites Canada’s Miller. “Wind turbines are fairly obvious because there aren’t very many other suitable materials to make these blades.”

WBLC Introduces an Upskilling Option

WBLC launched a pilot entry level Wind Turbine Blade Repair training program in 2023 that focuses on working with composite materials. The training was offered in conjunction with Relay Education, which delivers renewable energy and environmental education and training programs in classrooms and communities.

The WBLC program is designed to initiate people into the wind turbine industry. It covers applications and equipment used in wind turbine blades, mathematics, and understanding work documents.

Composite Canada’s Miller worries that there are gaps in the knowledge of working with composites in the field, so he welcomed the opportunity to work with WBLC on constructing a new entry level training program.

“This is a great program for a level-one person to learn about the industry,” say Reema Duggal, a lead for the virtual learning initiatives with Work-Based Learning Consortium (WBLC), who designs much of the e-Learning. “The reality is that there is no training for wind blade repair, locally, or that we can find in Canada. Each of the companies does their own training. So, this is a way to entice people to come to the industry and find out what the job is all about.

“For people interested in the industry, if you’ve gone through this our training, you are a much more valued applicant,” adds Duggal.

Trainees Found the Upskilling Program Valuable

“This WBLC program was definitely very helpful with a few videos and also quizzes that were at the end of each unit and that definitely helped me gain more knowledge,” says Justin Lau, a York University environmental studies student, who took a Relay Education Wind Energy Operations course at Holland College in PEI and then completed the WBLC training.

“I’ve had a great introduction to the industry for wind turbine blade repairs and I am definitely way more confident in doing it in real life” – Justin Lau, Relay Education Wind Energy Operations student

“I have not worked with fibreglass or carbon fibre or any type of composites before, but I think with this eLearning course, I’ve had a great introduction to the industry for wind turbine blade repairs and I am definitely way more confident in doing it in real life. I’ve learned a lot of the basics, especially with the composition of wind turbine blades and also a lot on the fibreglass repairing units.”

Lau says he’s likely to pursue a career in the wind industry, starting out as a wind turbine blade repair technician.

Another student, Ahmad Jabar has a background in electronics and is very interested in Green Energy. He also took Relay Education’s Wind Energy Operations course and then also followed up with the WBLC program.

“It was very helpful indeed! I really enjoyed every part of it and got to learn about many concepts that I had no idea about before enrolling in the program,” says Jabar. “Knowing about the whole process for Blades manufacturing was insightful and informative. It was interesting to learn about the difference in fiberglass and carbon fiber.

“It was surprising and intriguing to know about the procedure on how to fix blades defects while hanging in the air,” adds Jabar. “I think e-Learning is very convenient and it helps specifically when having busy schedules. To study at my own pace helped do more with my time.”

Work is planned to expand the new Wind Turbine Blade Repair program and develop other programs required by the Wind Turbine industry.

Closing the Information Gap Around Upskilling & Reskilling

Upskilling or reskilling is happening daily across the country as organizations seek to narrow the skills gap. But surprisingly, it appears that many businesses do little in terms of tracking such an important component of their training strategy, resulting in an inability to make evidence-based decisions around workforce training.

Leveraging some data collection capabilities, employers could potentially make better utilization of their staffing requirements and their training needs. They could ask themselves:

  • How many employees working in their current job would realize a performance improvement with additional training?
  • How many employees could be moved to a more complex job with additional training?
  • How many employees could move into a different job with comparable complexity with additional training?

By answering these questions, could employers potentially make more informed decisions about their staffing and training mix? Would government policy makers be better informed if they had more relevant data on actual upskilling and reskilling requirements?  We think so.

What is Upskilling and Reskilling?

It’s useful to have a baseline understanding of the two terms ‘upskilling’ and ‘reskilling’.

Upskilling: Training existing employees to meet the changing skill requirements for their existing job.

Reskilling: Training existing employees with a new set of skills for a new job within the company.

Upskilling is often the terminology used when hiring new employees who lack direct work experience in their new job.

“These definitions are typically used to define training for existing employees, but they also can be used for new employees,” says Morley Gunderson, a Canadian labour economist and Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto. “There are no hard and fast definitions in the literature out there.”

Work Based Learning Consortium (WBLC) discovered some companies have a broader view of upskilling.

“Many of the employers we work with had a broader definition of upskilling,” says Wayne Lamon, Director, Programs, WBLC. “They consider upskilling to include training existing employees already in a specific position, as well as the new hires.”

Lamon explains that several employers, who had hired a large number of new employees at one time, wanted to ensure these new employees all achieved a specific level of competency. But they also wanted existing staff (not just the newly hired employees) in a specific job, such as CNC machinists, to receive that same training.

“This ensures that everyone learns and uses the same processes and terminology on the job, whether they are a new hire or an existing employee,” adds Lamon. “It’s tremendously beneficial and many of these employers noted that our upskilling training led to a strong uptick in efficiency and productivity across the board.”

The Information Gap Around Upskilling/Reskilling

While it is assumed that there is a lot of upskilling and reskilling occurring, WBLC discovered that few companies track it with any thoroughness.“

If you’re a policy maker or a corporate executive and trying to sort through the challenges of the skills gap, you’ll likely be surprised to learn that there is no valid data source available for upskilling,” says Lamon. Further he goes on to say – “How much upskilling is being undertaken by employers? What assistance is required around upskilling? How much upskilling work is being undertaken by employers on their own?”

There’s an information gap that currently exists. Lamon believes WBLC has a solution to address this knowledge gap.

Creating an Upskilling Database for Industry and Government

As a result, WBLC has engaged with Future Skills Centre (a Government of Canada initiative dedicated to helping Canadians gain the skills needed to thrive in today’s changing labour market) to build a conceptual upskilling data collection system and work with some Canadian companies on a trial application of that system.

The first step was to conduct research around upskilling. This involved looking at the definitions of upskilling and reskilling. It also involved looking at what type of information is available to help companies and policy makers with decision making regarding upskilling and reskilling. WBLC also researched trends around upskilling and reskilling.There was a surprising amount of information about upskills/reskilling, but very little in the form of data.

“If I’m an employer with an internal skills challenge and I’m facing the great resignation after the pandemic, I need to know what’s happening in the general market. For those in the industry, finding the right information is likely to prove challenging,” – Canadian labour economist and Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto

“If I’m an employer with an internal skills challenge and I’m facing the great resignation after the pandemic, I need to know what’s happening in the general market. For those in the industry, finding the right information is likely to prove challenging,” says Gunderson, who conducted the research elements of this project. “The real problem is ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’, or as we say more formally in the statistical analysis, ‘finding the signal given the noise’ that’s out there.”

The second step was to build a data collection system, which WBLC recently completed.

WBLC also has identified an industry group to pilot and test the system, which will include working with Linamar of Guelph and the Canadian Association of Mold Makers (CAMM) member companies.

“We’re just about to launch this aspect of the project and it will be fascinating to see the results,” says Lamon. “We believe employers and policy makers within government could really benefit from this new type of information.”

Benefits of data tracking

Lastly, Lamon explains that tracking upskilling and reskilling data could potentially lead to better informed, evidence-based decisions.
For example, by evaluating the data, executives at a trade association could verify at a glance that while there are 2,000 vacancies for a particular position within the industry, there also are an additional 3,000 people already employed in that role who require upskilling.

“Equipped with this information, industry can potentially reach out to government to talk about how they could collaborate to address the issue and government policy makers will have a clearer understanding of the whole picture because data would now exist to support decision making,” adds Lamon.

Benefits of Certification vs Ad-hoc Training

Ad-hoc, on-the-job training has been practiced for ages. The problem is there is no defined finish line, nor the associated recognition of achievement at the end.

There are considerable practical and important benefits for industry, workers and others in certification programs for various job training programs:

  • It builds awareness of the quality of your trainees
  • For company managers, it provides an objective measurement for you that your employees are competent in the technical elements of their job
  • Certification helps employees validate their career choice, see the value of learning and generates excitement about gaining new credentials
  • It often increases interest from potential applicants to a sector that employs certification, compared to other sectors that do not offer certification
  • Over time, companies see both an increase in the capabilities of their employees and also an increase in their retention rates

How Does the Certification Process Work?

Prior to developing any training, WBLC works with industry subject manager experts to define the technical learning outcomes that are required to successfully complete a training program for a specific job. WBLC then creates a learning program that ensures all the required key knowledge elements have been embedded into the training program.

At the end of the training, the WBLC assesses and, if fully satisfactory, independently certifies Trainees’ qualifications and skill levels for the job at the completion of their ‘On-the-Job’ learning and awards the trainee a WBLC Certificate.

For example, the certification process for a CNC Machinist involves the trainee successfully passing tests administered during the e-Learning and practical ‘on-the-job’ training. During the process, the trainee demonstrates their knowledge of general manufacturing technical practices and procedures, and knowledge of technical work practices by completing an on-line examination.

In the CNC Machinist program, an independent WBLC Assessor verifies that the Trainee can set up machines and produce parts as per work orders or approved drawings while meeting all required quality standards and scrap standards. This outcome will be assessed at the conclusion of the training by having the WBLC Assessor observe the Trainee performing required job tasks and completing a practical assessment.

WBLC has established an industry recognized finish line and those that successfully cross it, receive a certificate.

The Attraction of e-Learning for Technical Training

It’s fascinating to hear different people’s perspectives on, and experience with, e-learning. Some see e-learning as having a positive impact on industries looking to attract young talent. It’s also playing a key role in upskilling mid-career workers who have been displaced and can play a role in certification of skilled workers.

“Good e-learning has always been welcome,” explains Reema Duggal, a lead for the virtual learning initiatives with Work-Based Learning Consortium (WBLC). “E-learning has been around for a long time. There has always been great e-learning and there’s also been some forms of e-learning that are poorly executed. We’ve been building upon best e-learning practices, focused on learning, competency and driving discussion as well as interaction.”

WBLC has developed a hybrid approach to e-learning, which means having e-learning at the core, and layering in other elements around the core to build a more comprehensive approach. WBLC’s learning programs typically include interactive e-learning, e-instructions, train the technical trainer, shop floor hands-on assignments, technical language training, on-the-job training, monitor coaching and certification.

Earlier this year, the Sign Association of Canada turned to WBLC for a new hybrid learning solution to support training Graphics Installation Technicians. Graphics installation technicians often create and apply large signage to cars, trucks, buses, and any large object, up to and including buildings.

The Sign Association of Canada is working with its members to expand their workforce to meet growing demand. They’re looking to attract young creative talent to the industry as well as people who have been impacted by workforce changes and are looking to upskill into a well-paying career job.

Attracting Youth to a Growing Industry

“Employees today are expecting more e-learning – the way we learn has changed.” – Karin Eaton, Executive Director of the Sign Association of Canada.

“We are an industry looking to attract young talent as well as people who want to reskill because of workforce changes. There are great opportunities for people who want a job in a different industry. How do they make that transition? Education is key,” says Karin Eaton, Executive Director of the Sign Association of Canada.

Eaton explains that education has been always one of the key strategic topics of importance.

“Employees today are expecting more e-learning – the way we learn has changed,” adds Eaton. “Especially the younger generation, they have spent 2-1/2 years learning on Zoom because they weren’t allowed to go into schools during the pandemic. E-learning is becoming more acceptable and new technologies exist to help facilitate it, wherever you are.”

“We have members everywhere (e.g., from Humboldt to St John’s, Kamloops, Moncton, Sudbury and more) in virtually every small or large city or town. So, what is important to our association is that we provide value to all our members regardless of whether you are in a huge community, with lots of opportunities and colleges, or whether you are in a much more remote location. The new, hybrid e-learning could potentially be an important new tool for us and our members,” adds Eaton.

Consequently, the association has embarked on a Graphics Installation Technicians learning program involving 10 companies from coast-to-coast to evaluate this new form of training.

“I’m just excited about e-learning – not just in sign manufacturing, but just in manufacturing in general. I’ve been having a lot of discussions with affiliates in the U.S., and you sometimes wonder ‘is this a Canadian question’ or local question, but you realize the issue is everywhere, and this approach could be part of the solution,” says Eaton.

Upskilling and Training Mid-career Workers

WBLC also worked with the Federal government to examine the impact of e-learning programs on mid-career workers.

“The Future Skills Centre at one point approached us very focused on mid-career workers,” says Rod Jones, Managing Director of WBLC. “Their interest was to see whether or not workers, who had either been displaced or were at risk of being displaced in their current job situation, could transition into a new job situation and acquire the skills needed.”

Jones says the WBLC team was focused on whether mid-career people between 30 to 55 years of age, who had lost a job would, respond to this type of training. Would those people be amicable and comfortable with an e-learning environment? How would they adapt? Would they be comfortable with this kind of technology?

WBLC quickly discovered that it was a very effective tool for mid-career workers in transition as well as for experienced workers who hadn’t set foot in a school in 20, 30 or 40 years.

“The important thing is that our hybrid e-learning works, and it is effective with a wide range of workers,” adds Jones. “It was satisfying their needs and interests and has proven to be attractive to a wide range of job seekers and learners.”

The e-learning modules created by WBLC are very engaging and very different from what students experienced during online classroom instruction during the pandemic.

“You can’t be a talking head,” says Rod Jones, Managing Director of WBLC. “It’s not just filming a classroom instructor. It has to have animation, be interactive and more to make the learning experience engaging. At the core, the e-learning has to be focused on the knowledge and skills that they are required to learn in order to perform the job well and successfully.”

Reema Duggal adds, “With blended learning, the idea is that it’s not just one thing, but it’s multiple techniques that come together to create a highly effective learning program. Our material is highly visual: it’s images, video, 2D and 3D animation, CGI avatars and many other elements. We’re doing all we can to help people learn the material and create a solid understanding of each topic.”

Jones says the key to success is to first clearly define the desired learning outcomes. Then, build robust e-learning programs that pass along the knowledge and skills that are required for a successful performance on the job. It has to be a managed and guided process for people to work through.

Why Companies Want Existing Staff to Also Take This Training

“We’ve had some pleasant surprises that have come from companies that have engaged with us on our e-learning and hybrid approach to training,” says Jones. “A number of companies have told us that they want all of their people on the shop floor to take the e-learning program. Why? Because it is a way of ensuring that all of their staff then use the same language and operate from the same knowledge base. They’re upskilling whole groups of people and upleveling the performance of their workforce. It can really give them a competitive advantage.”

Building New Blended e-Learning Programs

WBLC has been creating blended e-learning programs for a wide range of companies across the country.

“One fascinating element is that virtually every company we have worked with, this has been their first experience with e-learning for employees,” says Jones. “The results of the e-learning have been a differentiator for these companies. We’ve consistently followed a disciplined approach of first defining learning outcomes then deploying our training based upon a proven framework for capturing these outcomes.”

Jones says WBLC has consistently seen strong results – a rapidity of learning and application on the shop floor, improved employee retention and increased trainee satisfaction.