October 2015

Distance Learning for Ironworkers

In 2009 the National Training Fund received a grant from the Department of Labor (DOL) to support development and testing of distance learning. As part of the grant, we revised our National Apprenticeship Guideline Standards to accommodate both traditional time-based and “hybrid-progression” apprenticeship programs. The hybrid program includes the traditional hands-on component and a distance learning component. 

We define distance learning as a method of learning for apprentices who do not attend the classroom component of training center courses. The information or knowledge part of each course is delivered by self-study and includes periods of training center attendance for skill development, practice and testing.

Apprentices using this distance learning approach complete the same courses as apprentices taking courses at the training center, attend the training center for the same number of shop hours, and complete the same knowledge and skill tests. It is only the traditional classroom component that is completed at a distance. We recommend that the core safety courses are not taught using distance learning and that the apprentice must complete these at the training center.

Several local union apprenticeship programs participated in the distance learning grant including Local 387 in Atlanta; Local 732 in Pocatello, Idaho; and Local 495 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With the Apprenticeship and Training Department considering the development of eLearning courses that could be used to support distance learning, we felt it was important to see how these local unions are doing with distance learning six years after the grant was awarded.

We spoke to Travis Woolsey, Local 732 apprenticeship coordinator. According to Woolsey, they have apprentices from a large geographical area and made the decision in 2009 to move all of their courses to the distance learning format. Their apprentices read units in the reference manuals, complete the assignments and mail in their assignment sheets. They come to the training center for scheduled Saturday/Sunday sessions during which they take the unit tests, observe skill demonstrations, practice skills and take skill tests. Local 732 no longer conducts traditional classroom courses in the apprenticeship program (other than required safety courses). When asked about the effectiveness of the distance learning program, Woolsey commented, “Our distance learning program benefits the apprentices in that they do not have to travel weekly to the training center which means they are not taking off work. The contractors benefit as their apprentices are always on the job.”

In 2009, Local 495 Apprenticeship Coordinator Rick Meyer was involved in implementing distance learning. Rick is now the business manager and Jeff Steele is the apprenticeship coordinator. Local 495 also covers a large geographical area. Over the years their primary use of distance learning has been in the southeastern part of the state where there is a lot of energy work. The distance from the training center to the work sites is about 380 miles one way. According to Meyer, “Distance learning has been a huge asset in that apprentices dramatically cut their travel time and costs and as a result are more motivated.” That motivation may be due to the fact if they do not uphold their commitments required for distance learning, they may find themselves back in the traditional program.

Chris Tobiasson is the Local 387 apprenticeship coordinator. Local 387 has been successfully operating a distance learning option for apprentices living a specific distance from the training center since 2010. In fact, the program has worked so well that a number of the apprentices in the distance learning option have been asking if they can move ahead at their own pace in order to complete the classroom component of the program in less time than those apprentices in the traditional program. With the encouragement of the DOL in Georgia as well as their contractors, Local 387 is pilot testing a self-paced option within their distance learning program. This will allow motivated apprentices to complete the four-year apprenticeship program in about three years. These apprentices must still pass all of the tests, demonstrate all required skills and meet the on-the-job hours required by the local union. When asked about the self-paced distance learning option, Tobiasson responded, “We are confident that being able to participate in the self-paced option will be a major motivating factor for our apprentices.”

It is gratifying to see that over five years since the implementation of the distance learning project that the participating locals as not only still using the approach, but doing so very successfully.

The Apprenticeship and Training Department is in the process of exploring the development of a series of eLearning courses for our apprentices and journeymen. Once implemented, there may be more local unions interested in exploring the use of a self-paced option for motivated and distant apprentices. If so, then the lessons learned from these local unions who are currently using distance learning will be invaluable.