A decade ago, an innovative job skills training program called EnterTech launched in Texas. The program combined simulations, team projects, and individual study and personal planning. The goal was to rapidly impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes to unemployed and under-skilled citizens for jobs in the then booming technology industries sector.
For many of the target learners – public assistance recipients, teen parents, unemployed and underemployed workers – the notion of employment in high-tech companies like Dell, IBM, Motorola, National Instruments, Samsung, and Texas Instruments seemed an improbable – nay impossible – idea.
If NASA can put a man on the moon…
How do you train an individual to work in an alien environment? Preparation includes what to expect, how to act, what to do, and, most importantly, how to succeed in new situations. If NASA can prepare humans to work on the moon, why don’t we use similar instructional methods to prepare our poorest and least skilled citizens for work?
To answer this, a lot of research and industry guidance went into EnterTech. I won’t go into those details, but instead highlight the end results.
A new hire at EnterTech
Learners entered the three-week instructional program as “new hires” at a fictitious technology company called EnterTech (not to be confused with the thinly veiled fictitious Initech from the movie Office Space, serendipitously filming in the Austin area at the same time EnterTech was developing at the University of Texas at Austin).
The computer-based instruction included simulated job tasks, exchanges with virtual co-workers and supervisors, and an ongoing storyline with “decision points” that modeled work-life situations – like dealing with childcare emergencies, a difficult coworker, transportation problems, etc. Team-based projects were practiced offline in groups. Remedial math tutorials and a personal planning workbook provided individualized supports. The “new employee orientation” was supervised by the classroom facilitator acting as “HR Director.”
Why can’t we replicate successful programs?
The EnterTech Project was quite successful: increased employment, wage gains and college enrollments (read the Summative Evaluation Report. Once again, as with NASA, the program proved the effectiveness of immersive learning.
But the program was not sustained. There were obvious barriers at the time – availability of computer labs, high-end bandwidth and expensive server requirements, trained facilitators to manage the blended and technical aspects of the instruction, lack of funding for the schools and non-profit organizations serving the target learners, etc.
Less obvious to me is why we are not doing more with immersive learning environments a decade later. I heard an economist call the past ten years the “lost decade” because of declining employment and wages. But we have ways to avert such trends. We can put Americans to work in emerging industries and 21st century jobs.