As the construction industry struggles to grow jobs, Matthew W. Wallace and his company, VRSim Inc., are blazing a new trail for how the industry recruits and trains young people.
Teaching basic construction skills "is a serious, long-term issue that needs to be addressed," says the 47-year-old CEO and president. Wallace leads a small company that builds virtual-reality simulators, but it does more than that. VRSim designs an experience in which youths learn more effectively than in traditional classrooms. According to research at one university, it does it faster and cheaper, too.
Some liken VRSim's products to video games, and in a way they are. In 2006, the company introduced SimWelder, which Carl Peters, director of training at Lincoln Electric Co., calls the first commercially viable training simulator for welders. When students grab a torch and face shield, the classroom transforms into a virtual fabrication shop. The "video game" guides them through—and tests them on—a series of welding exercises.
"It is so intuitive in the way that it works," Peters says. "You don't need a welding instructor standing there all the time." Cleveland-based Lincoln liked the device so much that it bought the intellectual property from VRSim in 2009. Hundreds of simulators, which are now called VRTEX 360 and cost $46,500 each, have been sold to trade unions, vocational schools, manufacturers, the Dept. of Defense, and even state and federal prisons.
Designing training tools for the Angry Birds generation has reminded Wallace that learning is about failing, then trying again. Peters notes that high school students are more likely to go into the trades if they can touch the work firsthand. VRSim offers a safe haven for both, without the loudmouthed superintendents, scary sparks and nasty fumes of real life.
Last year, VRSim introduced SimSpray, a new simulator that teaches people how to apply coatings. Wallace has a vision for future simulators that will delve into other basic skills. His mantra? "It better be a game, or people won't want it."