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Arkansas Uses AR/VR Technology for Career Exploration

Community colleges and technical training programs across the state are using AR/VR tools from the workforce training company TRANSFR for virtual workforce training and to teach residents about career opportunities.

firefighter with VR headset
Workforce development officials in Arkansas say virtual reality technology could play a key role in career and technical training programs throughout the state in the coming years.

According to a news release, the Arkansas Office of Skills Development has been using AR/VR tools provided by the workforce training company TRANSFR as part of a statewide initiative to spread awareness about technical career fields in need of qualified applicants, such as construction, manufacturing and IT.

The state said the program has reached over 200 students at community colleges and career training centers since its launch last fall, with plans to expand to up to 4,500 this year.

Cody Waits, director of the Office of Skills Development, said the goal of the initiative is to accelerate career and technical education (CTE) across the state by familiarizing students with the job opportunities available to them. He said the program has allowed students to “test” career paths and weigh their options before job training.

“Students love it,” he said. “When they are able to use that headset and software that’s involved, it’s just a much different response than, ‘Hey, look at this pamphlet or booklet, and let me know if you want to take this course.’”

Waits said the program has so far cost the state about $585,000. He said it acts in concert with other workforce development initiatives in Arkansas, such as its Ready for Life program to connect job-seekers with educators and employers for job openings and career training opportunities.

“It’s not just allowing students to explore [jobs], but it’s allowing them to go through the simulations, earn badges and medals in the system, and being able to track their progress,” Waits said. “You’re gauged on how well you complete the simulations.”

Waits said he expects it to be more cost-efficient than traditional CTE programming in the long run by reducing the state’s course expenditures, as well as material waste in hands-on training courses like construction.

“From our perspective, there’s mitigation of risk [with] doing things in a virtual environment versus a lab setting or professional industrial setting. There’s an offset of expenses, in terms of waste if you’re doing welding, industrial maintenance or construction,” he said. “Not having to worry about materials and being able to reduce waste is another component we see, especially in the educational space."

Among the employer partners working with the program is the electric and telecommunications company Altec, which recently sponsored the Altec Technician Education Program at Arkansas State University in Beebe to train students for certifications in diesel technology as part of ongoing efforts to grow its technician workforce.

“To address the shortage of skilled talent felt by employers in Arkansas and across the country, the first step is ensuring that students and early career professionals gain exposure to the wide range of skilled occupations that are in demand,” Kenneth Calhoun, fleet optimization manager for Altec said in a statement.

The news release listed 15 participating institutions: Arkansas Northeastern College; Arkansas State University Beebe; Arkansas State University - Newport; Arkansas State University Mid-South; Arkansas State University - Mountain Home; Arkansas State University Three Rivers; East Arkansas Community College; Black River Technical College; Northwest Arkansas Council; Northwest Technical Institute; Ozarka College; South Arkansas Community College; University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville; University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton and University of Arkansas Fort Smith.

Waits said the state plans to expand this use of AR/VR among incarcerated individuals to use job training as a means of reducing recidivism rates, as well as additional post-secondary programs and K-12 schools moving forward. Details remained pending as of this week.

“We have to increase enrollment and interest in these careers, because that’s our future workforce and our future labor,” he said, noting other pending plans to expand the initiative for grades 5-7. “We can leverage that virtual reality technology and career exploration to educate them on opportunities that exist here, and here’s what those careers look like.”

TRANSFR CEO and founder Bharani Rajakumar said the platform has been used in several states, such as in Alabama and Texas, where officials have launched similar K-12 and post-secondary AR/VR career training programs.

“It’s hyper-interactive,” he said. “Unless the experience is poorly designed, you’re not passive. You’re an active participant in learning.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.