Penn Foster, which partners with employers and working learners around the country, announced a new initiative designed to bring leading-edge technology to bear on helping students prepare for careers in skilled trades. More than 140 skilled trades lessons in fields including HVAC, welding, mechanical engineering, and electrical maintenance now include interactive learning aids developed to support different learning styles and boost mastery of foundational and technical skills.

The new program will bolster initiatives like Walmart’s Live Better U, which recently expanded to offer training programs in skilled trades for thousands of associates across the country. As the demand for talent in skilled trades professions continues to increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn Foster’s short-form online programs are designed to provide new pathways to career opportunities that are both accessible and affordable for working learners.

“The skilled trades have long been overlooked as a driver of social and economic mobility,” said Dara Warn, chief customer officer at Penn Foster. “New approaches to both technology and pedagogy can expand access to training in high-demand fields for both workers and employers — in ways that can help chart a path to economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.”


The Penn Foster Training Program

The Penn Foster school is 130 years old, and for the last 20 years, it has been focusing on delivering a digital-focused learning platform.

“We have a catalogue of over 3,000 industrial skilled trades modules that are typically put together to support industry recognized apprentice programs or Department of Labor registered apprentice programs,” said Warn. “And so we are deeply entrenched in the heavy skilled trades space.”

She explained that over the past few years, Penn Foster has pivoted to focusing on interactive learning that can be done independent of an apprentice program. This led to the release of more than 140 simulations, videos, and new ways of instructing across a range of different occupational pathways, including HVAC and refrigeration.

Warn explained that the organization looked at the core of what it takes to be an HVAC technician, then used that answer to design the core curriculum with new instructional design, new videos, new simulations, and taking advantage of what technology has to offer in terms of bringing that skill development to life in a digital platform.

She also said that Penn Foster recognizes the large labor shortage in the skilled trades and wants its digital education to be a part of dealing with that.

“We are trying to think about how to accelerate getting people into these careers and into the field,” she said.

“For hands-on careers like HVAC roles, it's really important to couple the online training with real-world experience,” she added. “For us, that means taking the trainees to a certain level. This includes giving them all the theoretical training and giving them a lot of opportunity to practice. This could be simulations or decision making and then giving them the tools they need to advance their practice once they get in the field.”

She explained that most of the new class of people entering the field master their trade in partnership with a more advanced tradesperson. So the digital training offers the foundational skills they need, which can then be honed with on-the-job training under the oversight of an expert.


Accessibility, Picking a School, And Career Prep

Warn said that one of the advantages of a digital education is that it offers HVAC training to people who might not otherwise be able to get it.

“It really helps to expand access; it puts the learning in the hands of adults that are looking to build their career path,” she said. “They can fit it into their life; they can work and they can go to school. And then in today's environment, it is really just a great alternative to what's no longer available in terms of in-person training. Online allows you to earn the job-relevant skills, anytime, anywhere, wherever you want.”

When a person is trying to find a good school or training program, Warn said that they should look for someone who has credibility, an established reputation, and a skills-first orientation around the skills that the job will actually require.

“You have to find an organization or program that fits within your life,” she said. This includes how much of it is done on-demand and online, as well as the price point.

“And a program that is really supportive,” she said. “One of the things that we're really proud of at Penn Foster is that in addition to their interactive courseware, we surround our learners with a lot of human support, whether it be coaches or instructors. We're here to help them succeed. And you're going to want a partner that you feel has your best interests at heart.”

In addition to this, Penn Foster offers a digital job board where employers can post roles that are open. Plus, there are coaches at Penn Foster who can help students work through how to create a resume and how to interview.

“Our courses have a fair amount of your job readiness built into them, such as videos on how to deal with a customer in a difficult situation,” she said. “So we don't think of career services as something that should happen just at the end of your program. Throughout the entire program, we are trying to prepare the learner for what comes next: employment.”