Customer Story: How WECA Is Using Custom VR to Close the Skilled Trades Gap

WECA is using custom VR training to close the skilled trades gap. Electrical apprentices can safely practice and master the skills they need in a VR job site simulation.

Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA) is a trade association with training and apprenticeship programs in California, Arizona, and Utah. WECA has been training electrical professionals since 1929. It counts some of the nation’s largest electrical contractors as members.

WECA builds industry leaders through top-tier education. Its latest training innovation is custom VR.

The Search for Innovation

WECA has a history as an early adopter of technology. They launched online training in 2009, years before the rest of its industry.

“Our goal isn’t to use technology for technology’s sake. Rather, we ask where we can use technology to make our program stand out as providing better education and opportunity for the electrical industry.” – Michelle Gilkey, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer

In 2019, the association’s Board of Directors saw virtual reality’s potential to close the gap between classroom and real-world experiences for apprentices that they serve. It partnered with a third-party developer to create a VR training program, which offered WECA a chance to prove the concept of VR’s use in their apprenticeship programs.“Our curriculum is constantly striving to incorporate real-world skills and scenarios. Everybody got really excited about the opportunity to simulate a real job site.” – Maris Kaplan, Apprenticeship Curriculum Development Manager

When adopting any new technology, there’s always a bit of a learning curve. But the benefit was so tangible to the instructors, they couldn’t wait to learn and utilize VR training tools.

“It was fun for everybody to have something fresh. It’s nice to get away from ‘lecture, quiz, lecture, quiz cycle.’” – Joshua Simpson, Apprenticeship Curriculum Developer

Apprentices were excited. Most of them had never experienced immersive technologies. They stayed engaged and gave positive feedback after their experience was done. Just as importantly, instructors were excited to have a new tool in their arsenal. 

Just as WECA was beginning to ideate on how best to implement XR, COVID-19 shut everything down. Apprenticeship programs slowed as safety measures sent everyone home. WECA pivoted to existing distance learning technologies like video and interactive online demonstrations to keep its apprentices learning without disruption. Despite this, WECA recognized VR’s lasting potential for their apprentices and contractor partners. They weathered the pandemic, continuing to brainstorm for the day that they could resume their innovative work.

Discovering Motive: A New Way to Create VR Content

With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, WECA was ready to revisit the plan to deploy VR across their apprenticeship programs.  By this point, they had realized that bringing creation in-house offered greater control and the ability to iterate on training quickly.

“We really like to get feedback from instructors and students as soon as we can so we can start improving what we’ve created.” – Maris Kaplan, Apprenticeship Curriculum Development Manager

WECA did their research and landed on, a VR training platform that allows organizations to create and control VR training content from a central hub. In the VR industry, tools like Motive are commonly referred to as ‘authoring tools.’ 

Motive utilized technical and product specifications and wireframes provided by the WECA team, to build 3D environments and assets. WECA’s instructional designers then used the 3D renderings to build detailed, adaptive, and engaging training experiences. In late 2023, WECA launched its first original VR program, a gaming app to teach about Commercial Battery Energy Storage Systems.

“One of the huge benefits of using Motive is we are able to make adjustments almost instantaneously. We can sit in the class and make improvements so users have a better experience, learn more effectively, and aren’t hindered by the technology.” – Maris Kaplan, Apprenticeship Curriculum Development Manager

For WECA, teaming up with Motive and having a platform to easily customize and grow their content was a game-changer.

The Challenges of Quest for Business

For their first exploration with VR, WECA chose Quest for Business for device management services. Quest was offering the platform for free at the time and in these early stages, it was necessary to keep a tight control on costs. 

Unfortunately, Quest for Business came with unforeseen challenges. The WECA team found that support for Quest for Business was almost nonexistent. They had no help with troubleshooting or tech challenges.

“We were able to explore Quest for Business and learn as we went along. But our main issue was the support. When we ran into problems or needed assistance, it was really difficult to get the help we needed.” – Alyssa Bradley, Education Technology Specialist

With 120 headsets to manage, the lack of support became an obstacle. WECA needed a solution that would save their team time and energy so that they could focus on what mattered most, their learners.

The Solution: Partnering with ArborXR

Motive introduced WECA to ArborXR, a leader in device management. With ArborXR, organizations can manage VR devices, deploy content, monitor use, and control the headset experience, all remotely and at scale.

The hardest part about the transition was factory resetting all the headsets. The team at WECA’s headquarters had to walk through the process remotely with staff spread across three states. Thankfully, it was smooth sailing after installing ArborXR.

“What we found was that the Meta lobby wasn’t great for us, whereas ArborXR Home, gave us more control over the learning environment. The simplification of getting into the apps was a huge help that ArborXR provided. ” – Joshua Simpson, Apprenticeship Curriculum Developer

The WECA team appreciates how ArborXR Home lets them control the learning environment. Students can’t download random new programs, a risk of using Quest.

Success Through Innovation

WECA doesn’t innovate for innovation’s sake. As an official Apprenticeship Ambassador of the United States Department of Labor, their priority is clear, to ensure their registered apprenticeship training is accurate, effective, and safe. VR is exceeding expectations, and helping WECA remain at the leading edge of what apprenticeship can deliver.

“We’ve been able to determine that students who got the VR experience definitely had excitement to learn. And they had great results on competency assessments afterwards.” – Michelle Gilkey, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer

The better prepared a tradesperson is by their training, the safer and more effective they will be on the job site. Contractors hire WECA apprentices, confident they can handle any situation that might arise.

More than 1,200 WECA apprentices have participated in WECA’s in-house developed VR experience so far. 160 students completed the custom VR training within eight months of its 2023 rollout alone. And efficiency will continue to rise as WECA iterates, adapts, and expands their VR offerings.

The Future of Electrical Apprenticeship Training

VR training provides data for constant improvement. Instructors can see exactly which concepts give students a hard time.

Assessment scores in the background of WECA’s virtual training programs don’t affect the student’s grade, but help highlight areas where the course material needs to be clearer or go more in-depth.

“Soft skills” training is one of the next VR concepts WECA’s radar. Skills like teamwork and conflict management are notoriously difficult to teach. Yet they are central to what makes WECA graduates so successful.

“We want our apprentices to be leaders. They often become job site supervisors before they’ve even graduated. We want WECA graduates to be known for their critical thinking, their leadership skills, their willingness to collaborate, because ultimately that makes them more successful and helps our contractor members to be more competitive.” – Michelle Gilkey, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer

As the US navigates a critical shortage of tradespeople, trades education is increasingly important. VR training is a powerful tool in creating a confident, skilled, and engaged workforce in less time than traditional training programs. This is why WECA is the preferred apprenticeship leader in California, Arizona, and Utah. Considering custom VR training? ArborXR partners with hundreds of content creators to ensure your custom content can be made effectively and efficiently.

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