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What Alabama Can Teach Us About The Future Of VR Training

It’s not just Facebook’s headline-grabbing transformation into Meta that has sharpened our focus on virtual reality and its natural evolution to the Metaverse. By 2024, the value of the VR market is expected to hit $12.19 billion internationally, says Statista. There are now more than 171 million VR users around the globe.

VR uses computer-aided stimuli to create an immersive sensory experience that makes you feel like you’re someplace else. All you need is a visual and audio headset connected (ideally wirelessly) to a computer program that lets you simulate the real world. While the technology has long been associated with video games and entertainment, recent advancements have made VR an increasingly effective learning tool. It’s being used for classroom teaching and diversity, equity, and inclusive training, as well as for developing leadership and soft skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

VR’s ability to transport a learner somewhere else without them ever leaving the classroom means it’s also especially valuable for safely training workers to handle dangerous tasks and situations. Think chemical handling, firefighting, military operations, and electrical work.

Virtual reality is unlocking new ways to prepare learners and workers from all backgrounds for careers in today’s rapidly evolving workforce. And a surprising state, far from tech havens like Silicon Valley, is leading the way: Alabama.

How VR is levelling the playing field

Alabama’s LBW Community College is harnessing virtual reality to help special-needs students develop workforce skills to bridge the gap to find a career. The Alabama RISE (Re-emerging Ideas for Successful Employment) program allows these students to participate in VR simulations to develop critical on-the-job experience before ever being hired. This helps prepare them for in-demand roles, such as with logistics companies.

Research has shown that people with disabilities are largely locked out of employment opportunities, despite having lower absenteeism rates, better retention, higher ROI in training and development, greater productivity, and high levels of motivation. VR is helping the state of Alabama begin to tap this overlooked pipeline of talent.

Virtual world into future careers

The technology for LBW’s initiative is supplied by Transfr, a company devoted to using virtual reality to prepare students from a variety of backgrounds for their future careers.

Transfr has also teamed with schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, providing ninth graders with a virtual peek into several career paths. Students are using virtual reality to explore potential careers in the automotive, hospitality, public safety, and medical industries, says 6WBRC.

Nine other counties in West Alabama have also partnered with Transfr and a non-profit network of workforce development providers, West Alabama Works, to provide more than 1,100 high school students with insights into career and technical education options.

And in addition, Alabama’s State Workforce Agency AIDT received the 2021 National Workforce Program of the Year Award from the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP) for its virtual reality training program which is making job training in Alabama’s fastest-growing industries accessible to thousands of unemployed workers and aspiring manufacturing professionals across the state.

What’s powerful about this program is that it helps connect these students with career possibilities across local industries, including hospitality, tourism, architecture, construction, transportation, logistics, and manufacturing. This investment is proving its worth: there’s been an 18% jump in CTE enrolment at participating high schools compared with the rate three years ago.

Growing skills through VR

VR training is not only for students looking to start their careers. Mazda Toyota Manufacturing used it to create randomised scenarios for workers in its Alabama plants to learn and practice troubleshooting and maintenance on automotive painting robots. Without VR training, workers would have to work on live robots, which can be dangerous–and costly to the company, since taking robots out of service slowed the paint robots’ capacity. In-person training was also a challenge during COVID when staff couldn’t travel for off-site training. The VR approach helps improve trainees’ confidence, with three-quarters of them saying they preferred it to traditional learning methods.

Another VR training initiative is helping to transition serving military personnel, their spouses and veterans into manufacturing careers. The Manufacturing Institute has partnered with Transfr so these workers can translate their skills and experiences into highly sought-after manufacturing skills such as precision measurement, reading blueprints, plant and construction safety, and other certifications.

“Alabama’s work reaches far beyond the needs of one employer or community in the state,” said Bharani Rajakumar, founder and CEO of TRANSFR. “They are at the bleeding edge of using VR for career exploration, upskilling, and helping make good-paying careers in industries like manufacturing accessible to more Alabamians—regardless of their educational background.”

The Yellowhammer state should serve as an example for other states in VR training for staff and would-be employees. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this approach to training across the country.

VR now, Metaverse tomorrow?

I think of VR for staff training as baby steps towards the Metaverse. Immersing yourself in that world is something of a catchcry for Paul Daughterty, Group Chief Executive – Technology & Chief Technology Officer of multi-national IT company Accenture.

At Accenture’s Technology Vision 2022 event held in March, he said: “The Metaverse is something for here and now, not just for tomorrow. It will impact every part of every business and it’s coming soon … it’s the future of the internet enabling new worlds that bridge together virtual experiences and real experiences, virtual identities and real identities and also places.”

How will your organisation reframe VR training as a pathway to the Metaverse?

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