How precasters can gain an edge – and save money and time – by using distance education to train the troops.
By Bridget McCrea
When the time came to get employees trained and up to date on the latest trends, information and expertise for their positions, Kerkstra Precast Inc. of Grandville, Mich., traditionally sent those individuals out to different locations around the country. There, the employees would attend classes, sit in on seminars and participate in workshops. This continuing education strategy took the staff members away from their jobs for days at a time and it was expensive.
“Between the hotel, the airfare and the rental cars, it was a pretty costly endeavor,” says Mark TenHarmsel, the manufacturer’s quality control manager. When the National Precast Concrete Association developed its Online Learning Center and began offering Production and Quality (PQS) Level I and II instruction – along with various industry-specific webinars – in a 24/7, distance education format, Kerkstra Precast signed up.
“We saw the online option as a great way to get technical, ongoing education for our staff without having to send any of them out, away from their jobs for days,” says TenHarmsel, who has taken both the PQS I online and the PQS II webinar. “When we saw the announcement for the PQS II webinar and course, we signed up right away.”
TenHarmsel says being able to work through the material on his own time and at his own pace has been one of the major rewards of online learning. With PQS I, for example, he did the reading, watched the videos and took a test after each chapter. “The PQS II was a bit more technical and was presented by a ‘live’ instructor online (via webinar),” says TenHarmsel. “I was able to ask questions (by typing them into a live, online chat box on his computer screen); it was more interactive.”
TenHarmsel and several other Kerkstra Precast employees have also participated in NPCA’s online webinar, “The Do’s and Don’ts of Placing Reinforcement.” This course takes a holistic and simplified approach to understanding how reinforcement works in concrete, what type works best in a given situation, and how placement and consolidation play a huge role in producing a reliable product. “We allocated one lunch period to this hour-long webinar,” TenHarmsel explains. “Our entire production staff participated in that one.”
The fact that NPCA has chosen to make some of its continuing education options available online in an affordable, user-friendly format is a step in the right direction for the industry, says TenHarmsel. “As a quality control guy, I think it’s fantastic that an authority like NPCA is telling everyone how things need to be done,” says TenHarmsel. “It’s not just me telling our staff how to change things or do things a certain way. They’re hearing it right from the horse’s mouth.”
The online movement
The growth in online education is on the rise across the board, and instruction in the manufacturing space is no exception. Rewind 10 years or so, and the only way aspiring or existing employees could further their education was by heading into a classroom for hours of lectures and testing. The process was time consuming, to say the least, and required the students to leave their day-to-day duties and allocate that time to learning in a classroom setting.
Thanks to the Internet, many of those courses are now being taught online to professionals who can work at their own pace, and from the comfort of their own keyboards. Manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate by using the Internet (or their own intranets) for internal training, thus reducing the amount of time spent in the face-to-face learning environment.
Shea Concrete Products of Amesbury, Mass., is one of them. According to Gregory Stratis, manager, the manufacturer has used online learning for the PQS courses and is now looking at having multiple employees begin work on their Master Precaster certifications by taking the online PQS I and PQS II webinar. “I have a bunch of staff members who are interested in the Master Precaster, but flying them all over the place to attend the classes in person would be too expensive,” says Stratis. “Virtual education definitely makes that process easier and more affordable.”
In the past, Stratis says he picked one or two key employees to attend the classes in person, and then relied on them to share their newfound knowledge with the rest of the team. “It worked, but obviously if someone takes the class themselves, they learn more and stand a better chance of retaining the knowledge,” says Stratis. To get employees on board with the online learning, Shea Concrete Products paid staff members to take the distance education on their own time. In other cases, a group of employees convened at a designated time during work hours to participate in live webinars.
Stratis sees distance education as a viable alternative to sending workers around the country to attend sessions in person. “The more educated our employees are, the better off our business is as a whole. But we can’t take 10 guys out of production for a week to attend a class,” says Stratis. “Using the web, we can efficiently get everyone educated and up to speed with new innovations, trends and methods right from their own computers.”
The drawbacks to online learning are few, according to Stratis, who points to the inexpensive projectors (to allow multiple employees to participate in webinars as a group) and other minimal equipment investments as the only added costs, outside of the course fees. “We’re doing a webinar tomorrow, and we have three projectors set up at three different plants,” says Stratis. “For us to gather 40 employees from those plants for classroom instruction would be pretty unrealistic, but the online education option allows us to do that in a much more cost- and time-effective manner.”
Growing in popularity
Online learning isn’t exactly new. Colleges and universities have used it for years, usually calling it “distance learning.” Put simply, instead of making the daily trip to school to sit at a desk and listen to a professor lecture, students – typically adults with families and day jobs – could access their lessons through a number of different mediums including television, videoconferencing, CD-ROM and the Internet.
Companies and individuals alike have caught on to the convenience and cost savings associated with such learning formats, particularly during this challenging economy when every penny counts and time really is money. According to the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), an estimated 8 million Americans are currently enrolled in distance learning programs and enjoying the format’s flexible study schedules, self-paced courses and technological advancements. Enrollments in online courses and degree programs increase by about 25% annually, according to the DETC’s most recent numbers.
Online learning has advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to teaching and learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). In a recent study, the DOE found that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.
Leo Feuerstein, operations manager at Western Precast Concrete Inc. in El Paso, Texas, says the manufacturer’s employees have participated in numerous distance learning opportunities over the past few years. Recent courses included the NPCA’s manhole and rebar replacement webinars, as well as PQS I and PQS II. Previously, Feuerstein says the company would send one person to take the classes in person, and then “come back and try to reach the staff” with the newfound knowledge.
“The online options have made it much easier to educate more of our staff members without the airplane, hotel and other travel expenses,” says Feuerstein, who sees the growth in online learning as a positive trend for the precast concrete manufacturing industry as a whole. “It makes it very affordable for plants to be able to instruct larger numbers of workers and to get them certified across a wide range of specialties and courses.”
Feuerstein, a self-proclaimed “old schooler” who enjoys the face-to-face experience that the classroom instruction affords, says the ability to interact with instructors via phone, email or online chat helps create a more collaborative environment online. “The fact that you can attend a webinar, ask questions and get your answers back within minutes goes a long way in creating an interactive environment online,” Feuerstein explains. “Knowing that the instructors are there to answer those queries is great.”
More online learning ahead
DETC’s most recent distance education survey reveals a strong outlook for the distance education market, which is expected to continue growing in the coming years. The organization sees higher education – including traditional, on-site schools – turning to distance education as a “mainstream delivery medium.” TenHarmsel says his company plans to use the medium even more in the future as it strives to keep its staff “ahead of the curve” and up to speed on new innovations, methods and applications.
“We like the flexibility of being able to take courses and attend webinars online, and I don’t see that changing,” says TenHarmsel. “Signing up on the web, getting the education online, and doing any related testing right from our own computers is a big plus.”
Here’s the Lineup
NPCA’s complete online course catalog is available at precast.org. Here’s a quick overview of some of the organization’s current offerings:
• PQS (Production and Quality School) Level I is NPCA’s flagship course, and is the perfect starting point to provide plant personnel with the fundamentals of quality precast concrete manufacturing. (14 hours)
• PQS Level I – Refresher is designed for those who have completed PQS Level I and are looking to brush up on the fundamentals of quality precast concrete production. This class satisfies the five-year continuing education requirements for PQS Level I certificates due to expire. (4 hours)
• (Webinar) The Do’s and Don’ts of Placing Reinforcement takes a holistic and simplified approach to understanding how reinforcement works in concrete, what type works best in a given situation, and how placement and consolidation play a huge role in producing a reliable product. (1 hour)
• (Webinar) How Much Can You Lift … Safely? Proper lifting procedures can be a matter of life and death both in the precast plant and in the field. This webinar explores common mistakes that can be costly both financially and physically. (1 hour)
• (Webinar) PQS Level II – Technical is designed for plant personnel who are responsible for the design and interpretation of drawings, product setup or quality control in the plant. (12 hours)
• (Webinar) Pre-Assessment Plant Deficiencies for NPCA Certification reviews 10 of the most frequently violated NPCA QC Manual requirements as found in pre-assessment audits and plant certification inspections. (1 hour)
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.