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Upskilling and Reskilling Via Virtual Reality

As we start to move (ever so slowly) out from under the shadow of COVID-19, upskilling and reskilling employees are top of mind for learning and development professionals, according to the L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2021.

Of more than 3,000 people from 95 countries who responded to the question, “What will be hot in workplace L&D in 2021?”, 13% said upskilling and reskilling are their main interests. While 13% may not sound large, here’s some context: survey respondents could only choose one answer, and the #1 spot hasn’t logged that many votes in the annual survey since 2016. In addition, upskilling/reskilling was ranked highly across all job roles reported by respondents and around the world, too.

Of course, while employers were talking about upskilling and reskilling before, the global pandemic has pushed the conversation forward. A 2018 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that at the time of the research three years ago, 50 percent of jobs ran the risk of changing or becoming obsolete, largely due to technology. In early 2020, pre-pandemic, the World Economic Forum estimated that 42% of core job skills will change by 2022.

After COVID-19, changes to jobs and associated skills gaps are even more likely. Though the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% in January from a high of 14.7% in April 2020, millions of jobs – and along with them, significant job experience and skills – have been lost to the pandemic, with many unlikely to return.

Whatever the forces driving workplace change, employers are dealing with a smaller workforce that probably will stay smaller, at least for the next few years. But they still need people who can write software, run equipment, sell products, and manage functions. As a result, upskilling and reskilling have become even more important than before. And so has enterprise-wide training.

The Time Has Come for Remote VR Training

Whether an organization wants to upgrade employee skills to close talent gaps or teach new skills so workers can take on entirely different roles, training is necessary to both. And while traditional training modalities such as ILT, CBT, and OJT will remain in the long run, now is the time for organizations to add immersive virtual reality training to their toolbox.

2020 forced companies to rethink where people work, and today’s realities mean organizations need to make a similar leap when it comes to training. In-person group training and ILT are off the table in many places until the pandemic lets up and people can gather for classes. Remote training’s day has come, and improvements in VR technology mean that it can become a full-fledged member of the training lineup.

Until just recently, it was difficult to use VR equipment remotely, since it involved shipping an expensive laptop and headset and setup that can be difficult. However, new all-in-one headsets that don’t require connection to a laptop are lightweight, easy to ship, simple to operate, and far less expensive than previous VR training equipment. With these headsets, companies will be able to shift far more training to VR as remote work continues.

In addition, VR eliminates safety concerns connected to hands-on training. Foundry 45 recently completed operator training for TriMet, the Portland, Oregon, transportation authority. Training operators virtually is far safer than allowing them on tracks even during off-hours. VR training also answers current health concerns; it can be conducted both remotely and, with proper hygiene and social distancing, in the workplace.

Even after we return to the office, VR training still offers advantages. It is perfect for training-on-demand, allowing employees to learn at their own pace and take extra time to review trouble areas. It reduces the need for expensive equipment and expansive training rooms and allows for more flexible scheduling. Finally, it cuts the time commitment from SMEs needed for training – which, with a reduced workforce, has become very valuable time indeed.

VR’s Best Use: New and Improved Hard Skills

While VR can be used for a wide variety of training needs, it’s most effective for teaching new and improved hard skills – those that must be applied consistently and accurately. Preventive maintenance and equipment repair are two good examples.

The reasons? First, immersive training can closely simulate both the job environment and hands-on experience needed to perform tasks. While it can be used for soft skills training, such skills typically involve relationships with people, which are much more variable and much more difficult to imitate in virtual reality. Situational learning that replicates on-the-job experience is a great aid to retention. According to a study conducted at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, the retention level a year after VR training on hands-on skills was as much as 80%, compared to 20% just a week after traditional training.

Second, improvements in hard skills are easily measurable, both during and after training. Trainees learn, practice, and test before they start work. At that point, because it’s easy to measure results, it’s clear whether they can successfully apply their training to their new job role. Ease of measurement adds a concrete dimension to learning, proves effectiveness, and gives companies a real ROI for their training spends.

Third, hard skills training can accommodate elements of gamification, which increases engagement and makes training fun.

Mind the Gap

The L&D Global Sentiment Survey also found that organizations are more interested in tried-and-true training methodologies and may be somewhat less inclined to consider VR at this time (though mobile training delivery is still on their radar). Given VR’s benefits and recent technology developments, that’s a point of view worth revisiting. A company’s ability to meet long-term goals is at risk if it doesn’t have employees with the skills needed today. Virtual reality can help close the skills gap in an effective, safe, and engaging way.