In November, JetBlue announced that it would break away from historical practices in the American airline industry and begin a new in-house training program for pilots. In short, the budget airline announced that it planned to start recruiting potential pilots with no previous flight experience with the goal of training them from the ground up.

The program, in many respects, is not unique. Indeed, it resembles the model used by many European airlines, including Lufthansa whose training program suffered a serious blow last spring when a pilot who graduated from their program intentionally crashed a jet into the Alps resulting in a major loss of lives. While there’s no indication that the European model is flawed (indeed, prior to the GermanWings crash, Lufthansa was considered a leader in the recruitment and training of pilots), JetBlue’s announcement has raised questions in the training field.

Training in the Age of Virtual Simulation

First, what is the value of training versus experience on the job? Second, can a simulation stand-in for real-time hours on the job? To be clear, the airline industry is not the only industry asking these questions. Indeed, other high-stakes sectors, including medicine, are increasingly substituting the “real thing” with additional training and simulations, but even with the help of virtual and augmented reality technologies, can simulate work-related scenarios prepare workers for challenging real-life work situations? This post examines three sectors where on-the-job experience versus simulation continues to raise questions about best practices in training.

Case Study 1: The Use of Simulation in JetBlue’s Proposed Training Program

While not yet approved, the JetBlue plan, called Gateway 7, will recruit potential pilots with no flying hours and train them from the onset. Under the proposed plan, pilots will still be required to gain 1,500 hours of flying time before taking control of a plane, but there are a few notable differences embedded in the JetBlue program. JetBlue maintains that under its proposed program, recruits will also spend more time in simulators gaining exposure to bad weather conditions, as well as scenarios involving various levels of mechanical failure. So in essence, while they will, in the end, be hired on the same basis as existing pilots, the company will invest in recruits’ training and rather than gain their earliest flight hours in single-engine planes, which is how most current pilots started to gain flying hours, JetBlue’s new recruits will gain their first hours in simulated multiperson cockpits.

To be clear, JetBlue is still far away from setting its own trainees adrift. If the program gains approval from the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority), recruitment will begin in mid-2016 and the first set of pilots won’t be set free to fly until 2020. At issue in the proposed program is both whether or not breaking with tradition is necessary or wise and whether or not the program’s reliance of simulations should be permitted. What do people in the airline industry think? A recent article in Aviation Week Report emphasizes, “Sim training has long been recognized as essential to the safety of flight. It’s so rigorous, it’s almost gained the stature of a professional rite. But sim training alone does not guarantee you have all the knowledge and skills to be truly safe in the cockpit.” In other words, while simulation is key, it doesn’t necessarily replace real, hard-earned hours behind the controls of an actual plane.

 Case Study 2: The Use of Simulations in the Construction Industry

As discussed in several recent eLeap posts, the construction industry remains one of the most dangerous sectors in which to work. Reducing risks has been closely linked to training, but providing training on construction sites can be difficult. After all, with deadlines to meet and variables out of one’s control (e.g., poor weather conditions), employers often find themselves focusing more on the big picture (finishing a project in a timely manner) than training.

Shifting training from a traditional learn-as-you-go apprenticeship model to a virtual simulation model has the advantage of enabling the industry gain greater control over the conditions under which training can take place. For this reason, it’s no surprise that virtual simulations are becoming increasingly popular in the industry, especially as it struggles to prevent fatal accidents and serious injuries on the job. While still not as widespread as they could be, the use of simulations in the construction industry holds great promise. Among other examples, there is ForgeFX’s 3D safety training game developed for the California State Compensation Insurance Fund. The game puts players into industrial workplaces and asks them to use their knowledge of hazards to avoid potentially dangerous and even fatal situations on the job. Widespread use of simulations, however, will rely a great deal on private companies and/or unions adopting e-learning technologies to enhance worker training.

Case Study 3: The Use of Simulations in Medical Schools

Training medical professionals with scenarios will prevent major errors when interacting personally with patients.

Simulations have long been part of medical school training (often using life-size manikins and other props). Over the past decade, the move to virtual simulations has taken off and a growing number of programs now rely on these simulations to train doctors and nurses alike, especially those in emergency rooms and surgical positions. Companies, like Arch Virtual, use a variety of new virtual devices, such as Oculus Rift, to enable schools and workplaces to reproduce real environments, like operating rooms, in precise detail and put multiple players/learners into the room to simulate actual workplace situations. Perhaps more than any other sector next to the airline industry, the healthcare has been quick to adopt and embrace simulation as a way to enhance its approach to training professionals.

What Is Gained by Relying on Simulations

Critiques aside, there is much to gain from relying on simulations, especially in sectors where trainees may never encounter the most challenging conditions under which they will eventually be asked to do their jobs. Among other things, simulations offer:

  • The ability to put trainees into situations that may be rare but are also high-stakes (e.g., pilots are more likely to have experienced a variety of emergency weather conditions and even types of mechanical failure and doctors and surgeons are more likely to have trained to deal with atypical cases).
  • The ability to increase training hours and repeat problem training modules (e.g., a trainee who responds inadequately to a situation in the first instance could repeat the scenario multiple times to learn how to respond).
  • Enhanced data collection and feedback; like any learning management system based training program, technology-based simulations can be recorded, reviewed and even generate precise metrics to help guide learner’s training.
  • Ability to more easily train interdisciplinary teams (e.g., doctors and nurses will be able to more easily train together).
  • Ability to train in workers remotely; simulations carried out using virtual and augmented reality devices can enable remote training (e.g., for doctors based in rural and isolated areas).
  • Lower risk of liability; putting a rookie surgeon into an operating room comes with a certain number of risks—simulations reduce the liabilities connected to high-stakes training scenarios.

What Is Lost by Relying on Simulations

Despite the gains, simulations do raise some concerns, including:

  • Reduce opportunities to gain experience in real-world situations where the stakes are high and have real consequences.
  • May over emphasize extreme and rare cases and ignore the more routine and banal conditions under which employees will typically carry out their jobs.
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