Consider the following scenario:

You have just finished an eight-hour shift working in a customer service role. Your feet hurt. You’re exhausted, and you still need to make dinner and pick your child up from day care. After eating, you drop off your child at a relative’s house so that you can drive 75 miles to attend an evening course at a community college before making the late night drive home just in time to catch four hours of sleep … before waking up and doing it all over again.

Sound exhausting?

While this example may seem extreme, it’s a reality for many people who are living in rural areas and looking to upskill themselves for in-demand jobs. In rural Alabama, for example, there are “very real” barriers to education and training, including poverty, inequity, transportation and child care, says Dr. Vicki Karolewics, president at Wallace State Community College (commonly referred to as “Wallace State”), one of the largest colleges in the Alabama community college system.

Diesel by Distance is a workforce development program that Wallace State delivers in partnership with virtual reality (VR) training provider TRANSFR, the Alabama Trucking Association and multiple nonprofits. It’s an effort to ease these barriers and help people move into better-paying jobs while meeting the local demand for skilled diesel technicians and mechanics.

“We service a lot of working adults who can’t afford to leave their jobs and their communities to [move closer to campus] to attend a diesel program for a year and a half,” Karolewics says. Diesel by Distance is an effort not to reach students fresh out of high school but to “upskill working adults and help them move into a thriving profession.”

Let’s take an in-depth look at how Diesel by Distance is enabling both learners and local employers through blended learning.

How It Started

Although the coronavirus pandemic has left millions of people unemployed or furloughed, Alabama’s unemployment rate is low: 3.9% as of January 2021. Rather than a jobs shortage, Alabama is facing a talent shortage — particularly in the diesel technology field, Karolewics says.

The demand for skilled diesel technicians and mechanics in Alabama (and across the nation) isn’t new. Over the past few years, Wallace State’s diesel technology program has been working to build the local talent pipeline with support from the Alabama Trucking Association, which offers scholarships and job placement assistance with local employers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person learning and highlighted the systemic barriers many learners were already facing, Karolewics and Jeremy Smith, diesel technology program chairperson at Wallace State University, started thinking: How could they help learners statewide access the program from the comfort of their own home?

After seeing TRANSFR’s immersive training simulations in action during an industry conference, Smith realized that virtual reality (VR) was the tool they needed to expand the program’s reach. As Karolewics puts it, VR was “the secret ingredient” they were looking for.

After securing funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Wallace State partnered with TRANSFR to create a blended delivery option and bring diesel technology training to Alabamians when, where and how they prefer to learn.

A Blended Solution

Launched in fall 2020, Diesel by Distance is “a hybrid-style, on-demand program geared toward students who are challenged to access training where they live in the state of Alabama” — namely, learners residing in rural parts of the state, Smith says. The program teaches the same curriculum as its in-person counterpart but with greater flexibility.

Students can complete the program almost completely virtually through VR labs and eLearning, with periodic on-campus competency assessments and demonstrations that learners can schedule at a time that works for them (including weekends and evenings). Learners can also participate in paid apprenticeships with employers close to their homes to gain hands-on experience and “earn while they learn,” Smith says.

Smith says that VR helps translate concepts the program has been teaching for years into a virtual environment. Using an Oculus headset, learners can perform key diesel technology operations step by step, such as putting on a tire, performing wheel adjustments, or building an engine or transmission, Smith says.

Mastering technical skills is easier in VR than, say, by trying to remember a written list of instructions or memorize a chart. For example, Smith says, if you’re identifying pieces of an 80,000-pound truck to inspect for safety, you could try to look at a visual or read instructions from a textbook … but if you put on a headset, you can physically complete the inspection process in a realistic environment.

Immersive simulations help students learn the ins and outs of complex processes and recognize what failure looks like in a safe environment. It’s “instantaneous learning” that also helps prepare learners for their in-person assessments and demonstrations, he says.

A key benefit of delivering the training in VR is that it is “representative of an on-the-job work experience,” says Bharani Rajakumar, founder and chief executive officer of TRANSFR. Immersive simulations help learners picture what a day-to-day job as a diesel technician or mechanic entails, which is especially important for students considering different career options. It also helps employers improve retention and performance, because when they hire alumni of the program, they are recruiting people who “actually want to build a career in diesel technology” and are ready to hit the ground running, Rajakumar says.

Diversifying the Field

In addition to reaching learners who live in rural areas or who are juggling additional responsibilities, Diesel by Distance is specifically focused on making the industry “more attractive and inclusive” for women, who have long been underserved in the field, Rajakumar says.

Through funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, Wallace State is collaborating with the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology & Science to recruit and enroll aspiring female technicians. In fact, the program’s first graduate was a woman from south Alabama, which Karolewics says is “a major success.”

Many would-be employees struggle to see themselves in a role or industry they have never heard of or pictured themselves in, Rajakumar says. Often, people have “preconceived notions about the work itself” or the work environment, along with salary, benefits and opportunities for advancement. When community colleges partner with training providers to provide immersive training experiences, Rajakumar says, “it helps break down some of the barriers and misconceptions that exist” about different industries.

“There are millions of middle-skills jobs that require less than a four-year degree that can be financially rewarding and personally rewarding as well,” he says. Accessible technical career training can help meet the demand for these roles.

What’s Next?

As Diesel by Distance was launched in fall 2020, Karolewics says its long-term impact is yet to be seen. But she’s excited to see the program bring more women into the diesel technology field and hopes to take the program worldwide.

“It’s our goal to connect students to the greater world,” she says. “I will know that we have been successful when we can reach someone in Kenya [and] know that they can learn how to repair a diesel generator from a distance.” It’s an ambitious goal, but when colleges, employers, training providers and not-for-profit organizations come together in support of equitable training and education, there’s no limit to whom they can reach.