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This program is using VR training to help solve the nationwide mechanic shortage

<i>CNN</i><br/>Maryland's Vehicles for Change program is using VR to help train more mechanics and address a nationwide mechanics shortage.
Maryland's Vehicles for Change program is using VR to help train more mechanics and address a nationwide mechanics shortage.

By Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace, CNN

The first tool that mechanic trainees at Maryland’s Vehicles for Change program pick up is not a wrench, but a pair of virtual reality goggles.

First, students watch an instructor virtually demonstrate a skill; then they follow prompts to complete a procedure themselves in VR. After that, students work through the checklist in VR without prompting — all before practicing on an actual car.

“We can have three people actually doing a live instruction of an oil change while I have three other people simultaneously learning that same lesson in the headset — and it’s only one instructor necessary,” Geoff Crawford, vice president of virtual reality at non-profit Vehicles for Change, told CNN.

The virtual-first training program is an unconventional solution to a real-world problem: a significant shortage of qualified automotive technicians. Nationwide, retirements and business growth create 76,000 mechanic jobs to fill every year, but 37,000 of those jobs go unfilled, according to National Automobile Dealers Association estimates. In Maryland alone, Crawford said a recent online search showed 2,600 mechanic jobs posted.

The impact of this shortage extends far beyond the repair shops looking to hire employees. Trade groups say the lack of skilled workers in garages is driving up repair costs, delays and hurting those who need their cars fixed promptly. But Crawford is optimistic VR can help ease this bottleneck.

“It’s going to expedite the process of getting folks entry level, ready to come into the garages,” he said.

As VR technology has gotten better and cheaper, it has opened up opportunities for use in educational settings. In the early days of the pandemic, doctors and nurses used VR to train for treating patients with Covid-19. Fire departments have used VR to train firefighters without needing a blaze. And some schools have used VR to expand the classroom beyond its physical walls, particularly as demand for remote education exploded during the pandemic.

Martin Schwartz, the president of Vehicles for Change, said the virtual automotive program was designed to address another problem, too: limited job options for former prisoners.

“One of the problems that we have in our prisons across the country is we’re really not providing people with a skill when they leave prison,” Schwartz told CNN.

Released felons often have probation or parole requirements to meet and costs to pay, but have difficulty finding jobs because of “a big sign on their chest,” Schwartz said. But the automotive world is “a little bit more lenient and is willing to hire people with a criminal background and you can make quite a living.”

Marcus Butler started his VR training as part of a work release program. As he wraps up an eight-year sentence for armed robbery, Butler said he is thankful to have a career prospect on the other side.

“I have a trade of skill that is with me,” he said. “I learned it, I know it, and no matter where I go, there’s cars everywhere. I’ll always have a job.”

Schwartz wants to grow the program and make it available at prisons and trade schools. His goal is 20 new sites in the next five years.

“This is number one, the wave of the future,” he said.

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