The manufacturing industry continues to be challenged by a shortage of skilled workers, with 2 million jobs expected to go unfilled by 2025. The fight for top talent and the need to fill these crucial positions has become a daunting concern for material-handling companies across the United States.
Employers in New York’s Broome and Tioga counties were experiencing the same struggle, as more distribution centers were moving into the community without adequate labor. The skills gap posed a serious threat to prosperity, as well as to the surrounding communities’ ability to attract new businesses.
Local career center Broome-Tioga Workforce saw the challenge as an opportunity for growth, says executive director Sara Liu. The organization met with employers such as Willow Run Foods, a food distributor based in Kirkwood, New York, to learn why they were struggling to find talent. In the process, it discovered that warehousing and forklift experience were in high demand. Shortly thereafter, Liu and her team set out to develop a training program.
When it comes to forklift education, however, the traditional classroom has its limitations. Hiring managers need to see the full picture of individuals’ operating abilities, and check for things like hand-eye coordination or fear of heights.
The Raymond Corp.’s Virtual Reality Simulator offered a virtual learning environment on a real Raymond forklift, by plugging into the material-handling company’s patent-pending Simulation Port, or sPort. Program participants could get comfortable with the feeling of a forklift and its controls, while hiring managers reviewed their progress via modules in real time.
“The virtual reality technology allowed me to feel like I was operating a forklift in a real warehouse environment,” one participant says. “It was beneficial practicing how to raise and lower pallets with actual forklift controls. It helped me be more confident about my skills and experience … all before driving a forklift in the warehouse.”
From the start, participants embraced virtual learning, says Raymond’s Ed Dutkowsky, manager of corporate education and development. “It offered [students] a more engaging and realistic experience before performing on the job site.”
Participants watched classmates progress through modules, taking notes and learning the skills together as a team. A gamification aspect of sPort pushed them to compete to obtain the highest score, and helped keep everyone more attentive and engaged.
In the end, all participants received full-time jobs, Liu says.
“Employers could notice a difference in how prepared and confident participants who completed the program felt, versus individuals hired outside the program,” she says.
“The Raymond Virtual Reality Simulator was a win-win-win,” says Lynette Bryan, supervisor at the Center of Technical Excellence at BOCES. “It provided a holistic educational experience to round out the curriculum, offered engaging hands-on learning that was more enjoyable for the students, and increased proficiency levels so participants were more prepared when they reached employers.”
In a pandemic and beyond, Liu adds, this is the “new way of learning.”
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