The following is a transcript of a recent episode of CoatingsPro Magazine's ongoing podcast series about the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. More information on the programs is available at www.nace.org/education.
[This podcast was recorded on May 5, 2020.]
Ben DuBose: As we continue our interview series looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the corrosion industry, we’ve got some new perspective for you today. So far in this series, we’ve largely been reaching out to industry companies and talking with their leaders about what they’re experiencing out in the field. Today, thought, we’ve got a couple of special guests from NACE itself, where things are also changing as we try and best position ourselves to serve the industry during what’s an unprecedented time. One area where we’ve had a number of changes at NACE over the last few weeks is in Education. To help explain what those are, we’ve got a couple of leaders from our Education team. First is Pam Nicoletti, director of Education at NACE International. Pam, how are you?
Pam Nicoletti: I’m great, Ben. Thanks for having us today. I’m really excited to talk about the changes that we’ve launched in Education, just really in the past 30 days, and to speak to your audience about that. So thanks for having us.
BD: No problem, thank you for joining. And we’ve also got Melanie Diaz, senior manager of Education Business Development at NACE. Melanie, how are you?
Melanie Diaz: Wonderful, thanks for having us, Ben. Again, like Pam said, we’re very thrilled to tell the audience about what changes are coming and all the things that NACE is doing to prepare for a new work environment.
BD: Yes, I think it’s a pretty positive story, I would say. Certainly no one’s going to remember COVID-19 that fondly. But I think the way a lot of companies in the industry are responding with innovation, there’s a very interesting story to tell, and NACE is appropriately at the forefront of that innovation. Before we get into the particulars of some of the virtual programs that you all are offering, Pam, I’ll start with you. Just explain the timeline.
Think back to early March, before COVID-19 truly arrived. When was the moment that you realized that things needed to be expedited? I know some of these things had been discussed for a while, but when was the moment that you kicked into high gear, that we need to figure out sooner rather than later a new way to offer some of our Education courses?
PN: As you noted, we’ve been looking at the 4th Industrial Revolution in Education and really across NACE for some time. What does that look like to us, and how does technology affect what we do? That has been never more present than in Education, quite frankly. We’ve always been driving to a future where we had additional learning options for students. As you noted, we’ve been working on this for a couple of years, having students get their manuals digitally, things like that. We’ve been putting pieces in place to make this happen.
While we didn’t intend to launch it when we did, COVID-19 changed those plans. In March, as we saw physical locations begin to shut down, governor and our president began to put restrictions in place about what could be open, we basically backed off our face-to-face learning and decided to accelerate the blended learning and the technology that we use for students. So that happened probably early to mid-March. We started looking at what I’m going to call the “new normal.” We started working with our Development team, working with our Operations team, working with Melanie’s team, to make that happen in a much shorter time frame. We literally turned the first course around and offered it on the 29th of March, was our first blended learning course. Since then, we’ve had 21 additional courses be delivered. We have hundreds of students that are participating in those across the globe. We’re excited about it. We view it as a “new normal.” I say that in quotation marks. But a good new normal.
BD: Melanie, what’s the early feedback been from some of the students that have done this? I’m sure companies have their motivations as far as moving students into blended learning over traditional face-to-face. Certainly, these days, there’s a safety benefit with that, and that’s in the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment. What is the feedback early on in this process?
MD: That’s an excellent question. What we are hearing has been mostly positive. I think, having said that, I don’t believe we’ll ever be at a place in the near future or the distant future where we’ll be exclusively all virtual training because there is a need for face-to-face training. Some people primarily learn through face-to-face interaction. However, there are those that are very interested, and the experience and the feedback has been predominantly very positive for a couple of reasons. The companies — their projects, their current work projects that they had their employees very invested in, those projects have been cut in half today because of COVID-19. As a result, they’re looking for ways to keep their employees productive and engaged. What better time than to invest in professional development?
Of course, as Pam said, we don’t have the option of doing large-group and face-to-face training formats, so this blended learning model works perfectly. It was very intentional. It wasn’t something that just happened upon us. In fact, it was several years ago that our NACE Board came up and said that we needed to convert five of our instructor-led programs into e-learning. So this, to Pam’s point, has been something in the works for some time. It’s just the pace at which we have employed the new tools virtually has increased significantly and was definitely because of the trigger of the virus. All in all, I would say that the feedback from the market is very positive. Companies are so thrilled that they can put their employees in our Education programs and also those virtually. Timing was just — it was the perfect storm, if you will.
PN: If I could add onto that a little bit, Ben. One of the things that is really important to us at NACE is student feedback. So we do survey the students at the end of every course and ask them for their feedback: How did this work? How was your experience? How did your instructor do? Ask them, would they recommend the course to friends? Overwhelmingly, I’d say it’s probably 95 percent are rating the experience positively. They’re giving us suggestions for how to improve it. They’re talking about this taking them out of the field less. There’s all kinds of feedback we’re getting from students that are really embracing the new courses and embracing the technology. Just wanted to add, talking about student experience, let’s talk a little bit about that.
BD: Let’s transition into exactly what the changes are. It’s nice to hear that the early feedback has been excellent. But as far as what’s different now versus the traditional model, what are the changes as they pertain to the blended courses?
PN: Let me start and then I’ll ask Melanie to fill in there, Ben. The changes vary by course. If it’s a course that can completely be delivered via lecture, then it’s 100 percent online. The students will still have breaks. They’ll still have knowledge checks. They’ll still receive a printed copy of their manual as well as the digital. But it varies by course. So if you take some of our most popular courses, like CIP [Coating Inspector Program], the students will have a two-day introduction to the content, the lecture, with their instructor online. Again, they’ll have breaks. They’ll have knowledge checks. They’re going to get their manual. Then they will come into a face-to-face classroom for three days, where we’ll introduce the instruments. We’ll test them on those instruments, and we’ll do the coating lab experience that we’re pretty well known for in our coatings classes. So it does vary by class. We’re looking at each set of students as a group of learners and trying to meet the needs of those students, so it’s going to vary by class. Right now we have eight classes that have been converted to blended or virtual learning — eight different course types. Like I said, it’s different by class.
MD: I would add to that that, regardless of the delivery platform, one thing that NACE is known for is that there will always be that engagement piece between the instructor and the student and between student to student. Even though we’ve converted a lot of our programs virtually or a portion of them virtually, we build in those engagement pieces so that it is nota monologue. It’s pretty know throughout industry circles that when you convert something to online, the engagement piece can be lacking unless you’re intentional in the design of the conversion of that content into an online platform and making sure that you have those knowledge checks, group discussions, and Q&A between the instructor and the students. Those were definitely a piece of the puzzle as we began to move some of our content onto a virtual platform.
BD: What are some of the investments in technology that you guys have made to make sure that the experience is similar to what they might get in a traditional classroom setting?
PN: Great question, Ben. What you’ll see is that the delivery in Education is not just as simple as setting up a GoTo Meeting and inviting people, right? You’ve got to be intentional on the design, on how you do it. For us, it started with the registration experience. We wanted to change how students were notified that they were going to be in a virtual class. We wanted to make sure that they got a digital manual. We wanted to be able to mail a manual to their house. Then beyond that, we wanted to ensure that our instructor core, our first class instructor core — and they’re known so well by the quality they teach with — that they were prepared. So we put them through training. We basically do a face-to-face interview with them prior to the training to make sure they’re read.
We’ve also, in addition to making sure instructors are ready — and again, this is all not technology, but this is part of the preparation. Then we are encouraging instructors and reimbursing them for the cost of equipment they might need to really be skilled at delivering classrooms virtually. Examples of those might be tablets, might be higher-definition camera. Depending on what class they’re teaching, we want to ensure that they have what they need, either at their homes or at a local center, and also ensure that they are prepared with that technology, that they understand how to use it, that they can troubleshoot it if they have to, and that we’re there to support them, quite frankly, if need be. So that’s another piece of that. That more than answered your question, but I wanted to give you the scale of what we’ve done to ensure that, for students, they’re getting the same quality experience as they would have gotten if they’d come to a six-day class at NACE.
BD: I know one big question on the industry’s mind is about pricing, because from an economic perspective this is not a good time for many people in this industry. What are the changes, if any, that NACE is implementing to the cost structure for companies who may be interested in having their employees take these courses?
MD: We’ve done a couple of things. For our totally online courses that we’ve been offering, that we’ve converted to a blended platform, we have offered — especially given the state of the economy that we’re all globally dealing with — we’ve offered an introductory discount where we’re taking certain percentages off the standard fee for people to register now through the end of our fiscal year, which is June 30. That’s one way we’ve offered the public discounts from standard rates. Also, this is something that we’ve done in the past but we’re doing more of today. We’re offering corporate discounts, where if we have a company that has five or 10 or 50 employees that they need to go through a particular education program that NACE offers, we will give group discounts as well. Which I know that the companies are expressing they truly appreciate because right now cash flow is everything for organizations.
BD: I would guess that another opportunity for cost savings is the fact that you have a lot of companies — be it for economic reasons or health and safety — they want to avoid travel costs. They don’t want employees to be on the road the way they typically are. With these courses, it’s a way that potentially you can have some cost savings there as well. Pam, did you want to speak to that a little bit?
PN: Yes, Ben. Absolutely. We’ve always tried to place classes in regions where we see students in need of those classes. So we’ve always tried to be diversified. But having said that, we can’t be in every community. We can’t be in every state. We can’t be in every country. So with this, we can be in every country. An instructor can be teaching from Houston, Texas, and reach across the world to students. They don’t have to travel to Houston or a different location. Additionally, when we do place — for those students that need the hands-on experience — our intent is to structure those classes not only near them, but also to structure them around their schedule. What you may see in a face-to-face class is that it’s a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday because that’s a lot easier for somebody to take training on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and have less time out of the field. That’s a big concern to a lot of our customers — billable time. When we’re taking that away from them, they need to be able to save that.
BD: How does the fact that more companies are having their employees work from home fit into this? I would think that, on paper, when you have more folks that are at their desks, not out in the field, that that’s a greater opportunity for learning-based courses like what NACE Education does. But have you seen any movement yet with regards to the work-from-home effect boosting interest in your courses?
PN: We absolutely have. We get the feedback from students. We see, “I’m at home right now. My jobsite’s closed down. This is great. I needed the training. I needed the certification and I was able to get it while I was basically on lockdown at home.” We are absolutely hearing and seeing that. And Melanie, I know you’ve got to experience with companies, they’re coming to you and saying, “Hey, my entire workforce needs X. This is a great time to get them engaged in that and can you help us at NACE?” We are designing custom solutions to do exactly that with companies.
MD: Yes, I actually have a utilities company up in New York that had a large group of field supervisors who are currently — this gentleman shared with me that they’re currently at 50 percent productivity because they’re working on coating jobs and 50 percent of those coating jobs have been placed on hold as a result of the pandemic. Again, they were looking for ways to fully engage their employees in other areas on the every two weeks when they weren’t busy. Given that they can do these online classes from the comfort of their own home or work environment or wherever they are currently, they say this as a huge win and they’re looking to put somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 different supervisors across the United States through our online program. That’s a perfect example of what Pam was just mentioning.
BD: What are some of the challenges that NACE has logistically in making this transition for the students or the people taking your courses?
PN: I would say probably the biggest challenge is always the face-to-face needs and the hands-on instrumentation. It’s really important to asset owners and to people we work with that we get that hands-on experience. What we’re doing is we’re trying to maximize the time when we have the students in those cases, where classes do have hands-on training. So we’re going to maximize those training opportunities with students.
We’re not going to keep them in class when they’re traditionally being lectured. We’re going to do that blended. But when they do come to class we’re going to maximize that time. Our course developers have literally worked through scenarios with our instructors and with others on how we do that. We’ve literally looked at those courses, said, “Here’s how we can make best use of this time, and let’s do that.” That’s been an ongoing effort for us and will continue to be an ongoing effort.
BD: We’re finishing up this podcase with Pam Nicoletti and Melanie Diaz of NACE International. They work within Education. My name is Ben DuBose, your host. As we finish up, I want to ask each of you what you think this summer is going to look like, what the challenges are, what the opportunities are within this new virtual environment and also, I guess an appropriate place to start. Pam, we can begin with you. For people that are listening to this podcase and want more information, where can they get it, being a website, an email address? I know that it’s not easy to have all the answers, but at least some of them I know are available online. What does the future look like and what’s the best way for them to find out more?
PN: Thanks, Ben. The website is www.nace.org/education. Pretty much everything we have, we try to keep it really up to date on the website as much as we can. Melanie can provide her email address. You can reach out to her. You can reach out to me. Our contact details are available online, LinkedIn. And I know, Ben, you can provide them as a link on the podcast. So what does this summer look like? That’s a great question. Every day, when I thought I knew what the next month looked like, it changes.
What we’re seeing right now is that we’re going to see some areas are going to reopen and some areas are going to be closed. Travel is going to continue to be restricted for students and instructors. We are going to see some face-to-face training. We have a lot of students interested in not only finishing up their hands-on pieces but engaging in the full face-to-face classes, as Melanie noted earlier in the podcast. Probably we’ll see a reduction in our face-to-face training but an increase in our blended classes. Like I said, we’ll see some areas of the world opening. We’re starting to see China come back right now. We’ve had four classes there in the past month and we’ve got three more scheduled in the next month. We’re closely monitoring each area. The Houston training center will reopen the first day of June. So we will be back in business, at a limited capacity, but we will back in business in Houston the first week in June. It’s going to be a mixed bag, but we’re going to continue what we’re doing on the blended side, and we’re going to continue to try to meet students where they need the training that we offer and ensure that we’re doing that as best we can.
BD: Melanie, I’ll transition to you for the last word.
MD: As far as corporate agreements, where an organization has multiple employees that may be interested in any particular of our NACE courses, either individually or a conglomerate of NACE courses, we offer corporate agreements. I wanted to mention that. We also — not only do we offer online and blended programs but for the face-to-face pieces, we offer in-house education as well, where we can take the training, as Pam mentioned, to the employer, to their organization, when those travel restrictions have been lifted and health officials say that it’s safe to do so. If any company or organization or individual is interested in something like that, or so many licenses within multiple employees within an organization, to take some of our online or blended programs, they are more than welcome to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to issue a quote or just answer questions that they may have and come up with the right fit for their organization’s training needs.
BD: Melanie, Pam, thank you so much for the time and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
PN: Thank you, Ben. Really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and to connect with your audience. We’re not seeing people enough but it’s certainly great to get to talk to them. Thank you.
MD: Thank you, Ben.
BD: Strong insight there from Pam Nicoletti and Melanie Diaz of NACE.
[Summary and closing statements]