For well over a year, it’s not surprising to hear an event has “gone virtual.” Weddings, holidays and happy hours — not to mention work, school and family functions — were forced online due to the pandemic.

Like many teachers across the country, training directors in charge of molding the minds of sheet metal apprentices found their jobs particularly challenging — how can the many elements of a hands-on trade be transferred to an online platform?

Apprentices at Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 in Central Pennsylvania typically have a mix of 75% hands-on learning and 25% classroom instruction while in school, but for the past year online training has required all learning to be classroom instruction. Although apprentices at Local 27 in New Jersey have been back in school since last summer, John Espinos and Pat Edmonds, training directors for Locals 27 and 19, respectively, agreed they had the same difficulty keeping their students motivated.

“We’re struggling to keep people engaged,” Edmonds added. “Our apprentices aren’t built for classroom instruction, especially online.”

Edmonds called Espinos with an idea to have a virtual spring contest as something to not only inject energy into the training centers, but also determine how well apprentices were retaining information from distance learning online.

“This was also to help us out as instructors and directors,” Espinos said. “The test would show us where we’re weak as an industry, as a trade. If we had individuals who didn’t do well on the math portion, for example, we would know.”

The online assessment, administered through TotalTrack and taken on apprentices’ own time, was created to test their knowledge of the trade. The test was available from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6 and included 225 core curriculum questions, 25 math questions, 25 welding questions (for the fourth-year apprentices only) and 25 duct-sizing questions.

“A lot of the preparation was apprentices reading the material and taking the test on their own time,” Espinos said.

“One of the most impressive parts was a lot of them did really well on the math,” Edmonds added. “And they had no idea what would be on the test.”

Typically, first-year apprentices aren’t permitted to take part in the annual contest, because by the time the contest takes place, they have yet to finish their first year. In this case, first-year apprentices were allowed to enter the virtual contest, and the highest score was achieved by Kyle Gibb, a first-year apprentice from Local 27, with 99.56%.

Apprentices from Locals 19, 12, 22, 44, 27 and 100 participated from their homes in Pennsylvania (Central, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh), New Jersey (Cranford and Farmingdale) and Washington, D.C./Maryland.

Virtual contest winners included, of the first-year apprentices, Gibb, first place; Taylor Hendricks of Local 27, second place; and Danny Seneri of Local 12, third place. Second-year apprentice winners included Gregory J. Walsh of Local 19 (Philadelphia), first place; Devin Wolfe of Local 19 (Central Pennsylvania), second place; and Bobby Donaldson of Local 100, third place. Among the third-year apprentices, Matthew Dolansky from Local 27 took first place; Dillon Koch from Local 19 (Central Pennsylvania), second place; and Braxton Koppenheffer from Local 19 (Central Pennsylvania), third place. Of the fourth-year winners, Joseph Rodaligo of Local 27 placed first; Michael Abatemarco of Local 27, second place; and Sean R. Meyer of Local 22, third place.

The contest started out as a motivator, but it also shined a light on the abilities of training centers to reach apprentices in rural areas, students who would normally have to drive up to four hours to attend class at their nearest training center, Edmonds said.

“We learn every day, as corny as it sounds,” Espinos said. “Discussing it with Pat and watching the apprentices at Local 27 embrace it 100%, we learned we can do a lot of the hands-on stuff in distance learning. I like in-person better, but it gave me faith, because this was an individual-led exercise. They weren’t sitting in class prepping for this. They had to do it on their own.”

Now they’ve been through a virtual contest, Espinos and Edmonds agreed similar regional and national contests would be a good way to keep apprentices moving forward. Due to the technology embraced by the ITI and the curriculum and courses available online, the training directors think there is a list of skills that can be measured online, from AutoCAD to welding symbols and bend allowances.

“It could be endless possibilities,” Edmonds said. “We’re trying to get through to as many students as we can at a time.”

In the meantime, Espinos, Edmonds and the other training directors in their region are aiming for a COVID-19 protocol-friendly, in-person contest this summer, complete with outdoor events, games and barbecue in Central Pennsylvania, which would be a drivable distance for apprentices, instructors and directors.

Apprentices receive training in AutoCAD, air balancing, refrigeration/service, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design, fabrication and installation. While they are learning in the classroom, they are gaining skills on the job site including installation of architectural sheet metal, kitchen equipment and duct for heating and air conditioning systems in residential and commercial buildings. The goal is for apprentices to graduate with zero tuition debt and a career to last a lifetime.

More than 14,000 apprentices are registered at 148 training facilities across the United States and Canada. The International Training Institute (ITI) is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

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