Chapter Corner

Online Apprentice Training: Working in IEC Chapters

Posted in: Features, January/February 2013

InsightsPic_GradComptr.gifA number of IEC chapters have been implementing online apprenticeship training. While such endeavors always present challenges, they can end up being highly successful. IEC Atlanta and IEC-Dakotas are two such examples.

IEC Atlanta

IEC Atlanta recently introduced an online apprenticeship training program. “We recognized that many students who were attending our classroom program had to travel long distances more often to complete work assignments,” reports Todd Hawkins, training director for the chapter. “In other words, they weren't always working locally, so it became more and more difficult for them to attend on-site training sessions. As a result, we decided to create an online program to help them stay engaged in the training."

Niel Dawson, IEC Atlanta's executive director, started the program and it then became Hawkins' job as training director to coordinate the creation of the program. “We started by working with our local Apprenticeship & Training Committee,” states Hawkins. “From there, we got instructors, contractors, and other partner members involved to discuss how the program would work, what the platform would be, and how we would create the content.”

The team also looked at how other organizations were doing online training programs through tech- nology such as WebEx. “We found that a lot of it was done through PowerPoint delivery from an instructor, so we designed PowerPoints based on the lesson plans,” said Hawkins.

IEC Atlanta's online apprenticeship program utilizes an integrated training model to train appren- tices in real-time, at times and locations that are convenient for them. The program provides live virtual instruction, using dedicated instructors. Classes are scheduled one evening per week, just as they are for on-site training. The web-based program allows apprentices to see their instructor, watch live demonstrations, and ask real-time questions with voice-over Internet  protocol.  Instructors  are also available for individual questions prior to each class.

Since hands-on training is a vital part of the program, labs are required four times per year for four hours at a time, and are conducted according to a prescribed format that directly relates to the curriculum. IEC Atlanta has lab locations throughout the state.

And although there are built-in safeguards to assure that students are acquiring the necessary skill sets and competencies, the program also features proctored four-hour exams. To take these exams, online apprentices are required to travel to a pre-assigned location, which in most cases will be the same location as the hands-on lab.

The program follows IEC National's curriculum. As a result, students who currently attend on-site training are able to seamlessly shift to online training, using the same books, instructional methods, and curriculum. In addition, the program is certified by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), meaning that it meets the federal Davis-Bacon Wage requirements.

Contractor responsibilities? A contractor must be willing to sponsor the apprentice for the online program, ensure that the apprentice has adequate computing and internet access, allow the apprentice to travel to the lab and testing location at the prescribed times, and may be required to assist in proctoring the exams. In return, the contractor is kept informed of the apprentice's attendance record and grades each semester.

“We have heard from many students who really enjoy the program,” states Hawkins. “They say that the instructors have really gone out of their way to make the content understandable.”

Despite the success of the program, it is not without  its  challenges, which the chapter continually seeks ways to address.

One challenge is that it can be difficult to connect with people you can't see in a classroom. “For example, instructors can't see the students’ body language,” notes Hawkins. “In addition, a lot of students aren't willing to speak up and admit they don't understand something.”

Another challenge of not having a physical facility is that it eliminates the opportunity for students to create the social connections that they would otherwise form in a classroom.

A third challenge, according to Hawkins, is that a lot of the younger students are not willing to do the required work. “Many students admit that they don't put the time and effort in, in order to maintain their grades,” he states. Hawkins recalls a middle-aged man who had never touched a computer before starting the online class, but quickly became a top performer in the class because he had the discipline to sit down, do his work, and turn it in on time. “Younger students need to understand that online is not the preferred way to go through an apprenticeship program,” emphasizes Hawkins. “However, if they are going to be involved in it, they need to be dedicated and disciplined.”

In response to these challenges, IEC Atlanta continues to look for ways to improve its retention rate and also the grade point averages of the students who are enrolled in the program.

“We have encouraged students to create study groups of fellow students who are in close proximity to each other, such as in the same city,” he states. “They can meet in person, by phone, or via social media outlets, such as ooVoo or Skype. This has helped to build the social bonds.”

IEC Atlanta also stays in touch with students and lets them know what their grades are. “We explain that non-response to their assignments is hurting their grades,” he adds.

It is important to be diligent in terms of finding the students in the first place who are disciplined and willing to accept the online challenge, and be willing to turn away those applicants who are not. “In the future, we are considering the idea of having people earn spots in the program before they actually enroll,” states Hawkins. For example, are they going to be able to complete the math portion? This would be a five to six-week pre-apprenticeship program. “Anyone who doesn't achieve the required work level would not be granted entry into the program,” he continues. “If they aren't willing to show their commitment to put the effort into the pre-program, then we would not allow them to enter the full program.”

Partly as a result of its online program, IEC Atlanta was named the 2012 IEC National Apprenticeship Chapter of the Year, which is based on a number of criteria, including:

  • the percentage of member companies participating in the apprenticeship program;
  • use of innovative recruiting methods;
  • the quality of student programs and services;
  • how well the chapter creates an IEC community;
  • student grade point averages and retention rates;
  • participation on local and national committees; and
  • instructor performance regarding certifications and training that make a direct impact on the quality of education.

IEC Dakotas

IEC-Dakotas began training electricians in the 1940s. Since 2006, the chapter has offered an online apprenticeship training program, which has become a success. In mid-2012, DOL recognized IEC-Dakotas as a 21st Century Registered Apprenticeship Trailblazer and  Innovator, part of the National Registered Apprenticeship  System, which  is the result of the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937. In accepting the award, IEC-Dakotas Executive Director Pam Fuhrer noted, “Our chapter considers itself a leader in the online training of apprentices in the electrical field. Through the online system, we believe we meet or exceed the challenge of producing qualified, professional electricians through the National Registered Apprenticeship System.”

Students are allowed to participate in online training if they live more than 60 miles from a classroom location. If they live closer than 60 miles, they must participate in classroom training.

“We began offering online classes using the Digital Dakota Network system, which was a satellite system,” reports Fuhrer. “We had an instructor in one location and students attending another location in person. They could see and hear the instructor." However, she reports, this did not work, because students had to be in the location on certain days and at certain times, and their employment obligations often did not allow this to happen.

"As a result, we decided to put Year One of the program online," she continues. "We beta tested it with students, and found that it worked."

Since the program was rolled out, IEC Dakotas had some other IEC chapters contact them to utilize the program. "As a result, we have students from at least ten states, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border," said Fuhrer. "There are places where good Internet connections do not exist, though, so some students have to drive five or ten miles just to get a good connection."

While the program has been a success, it is not without its challenges. For example, with the avail- ability of the Internet, students have the opportunity to conduct comprehensive research online as part of their apprenticeship training. “However, we find that students usually don't do this,” she states. The reason: many of them come out of high school or tech school without really knowing how to use the computer for research. “This was surprising to us,” she admits. “We figured they would be so much more computer-literate at their age than we were. What we finally realized was that most of the people are in this trade because they like the sense of accomplishment that comes from the work they do on the job. School tends to be secondary to them. In addition, even if the students do know how to access information online, they need to have the motivation to do all of this.”

One solution to this challenge has been for the chapter to provide additional coaching to students taking the online curriculum. “We need to make sure that they understand what is available out there and how to access it,” she explains. “We have a full-time instructor available to assist students if they have problems. We also have a chat session on the system.”

The chapter also keeps track of students' progress and what they are doing. "We want  to make sure they are keeping up with their lessons," she continues.

IEC-Dakotas is always looking for ways to improve the program. “We take all of the feedback we get from students and others who are involved in the program and consider it for future changes,” states Fuhrer.

Next, IEC-Dakotas will create an online journeyman program, as well as maybe additional online courses for contractors. “In fact, we have a contractor right now taking an online course who wonders why we don't have everyone online,” she concludes.

William Atkinson is a freelance writer with knowledge in the electrical contracting and construction industry.