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By Jeff Wing
September 19, 2016
Whew! It’s a hot one, all right! You walk around the side of the house with a cold glass of lemonade for the nice guy who has come out to fix your air conditioning. When you round the corner you find him wearing strange futuristic spectacles, waving his fingers at the unit and murmuring at the empty air. You stop in your tracks and begin to very quietly tiptoe backwards. If you can just get back inside the house and deadbolt the door, you might be okay...
Okay, hold it right there.
What you’re seeing is a field professional making use of Smart Glasses––one of the newer tools on the market and just possibly a tech savior that stands to massively change the way we train new construction workers and tradespersons on the job. Smart Glasses is the generic name for a new class of hi-tech spectacles that actually transmit and receive streaming audio/visual communications in the field. Several companies are presently rushing to market with an innovation that is being hailed as a possible stopgap solution to construction’s skilled labor drain.
Here are workplace safety glasses that can actually convey expert knowledge to the worker in the field. And they couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment for you––the field trainee ready to fill these critical skill gaps in the construction workforce. The shortage of skilled labor in construction has become acute to the point that construction projects are being slowed by demand for skills that are in short supply.
When the housing bubble burst in 2008, construction projects across the country were stopped cold by the bank-panic and funding freeze. Many thousands of skilled construction workers, stunned by the suddenness and the scale of the collapse, took the opportunity to throw in the trowel and leave the construction trades altogether. From electricians to welders to carpenters, the sudden flight of skilled workers was unprecedented.
Today, the need for skilled workers is nearly dire. As just one example, the construction-critical HVAC sector (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) predicts a shortfall of 115,000 workers trained in the HVAC skill-set by 2020.
But times are already tight today for Tennessee-based Lee Company. When a skilled worker shortage became a real threat to the 73 year-old company, they knew the only way out was forward, and they started researching technological solutions.
How can tech innovation possibly stand in for an experienced tradesperson? Hint: it can’t. Fortunately, there is no substitute for human experience.
But what if a lightweight workplace safety visor were able to both send and receive imagery and sound, connecting technicians across great distances? In one scenario (a critically important scenario at the moment), the experienced tradesperson remotely sees what the trainee in the field is seeing, and guides the trainee in real time to make the repair.
We’ve all seen science programs about remote surgical robots that will one day be able to mimic a surgeon’s manual commands hundreds of miles away, making the immediate local need for a life-saving surgeon obsolete. Smart Glasses offer the same benefit of “remotely beamed-in expertise,” but for one crucial difference; this remote repair is ultimately human-powered, and is positively colored by that interpersonal element.
Wearables. It is the industry catchword for any computer processing device one wears like an article of clothing or an accessory. These monitoring systems are changing the workplace. From repetitive motion trackers to toxic-environment warning systems, wearables are providing information that is daily being used to innovate safer and more ergonomically informed work environments. In the case of Lee Company, wearables are being used to convey critical tech skills from a remote location to the worksite.
The potential for increasing productivity is enormous. This idea of the “telepresence” of a skilled laborer who can look in and guide the field work from virtually anywhere in the world is already softening the blow of the skilled labor shortage. Lee Company’s HVAC business, with its very industry-specific skill-sets, provided the perfect fertile ground for a pilot program that sought a solution to the skilled-labor shortage that threatened to close the company down. The results? Lee Company reports a 20/1 ROI on investment, and a large boost in monthly sales.
Smart Glasses broadcast and receive sound and images in the field, where and when the work is being done. What exactly does this mean? It means an expert technician can remotely monitor and assist a junior tech’s field repair in real time. Mistakes large and small are pointedly avoided when an expert is seeing what the field tech is seeing and offering real time visual and spoken assistance. Two heads and four hands. Significantly, the technology also means the repair tech is able to offer the customer an unprecedented oversight of the repair itself.
Imagine a repair technician arriving in his truck and within a minute handing an iPad to the possibly ruffled customer, and saying something history-making like “You’re welcome to watch the repair if you’re interested.” There has always been in the service provider/customer marketplace a hard-wired element of mild distrust. Now, rather than a repairperson disappearing into the mysterious clockworks of a job and returning hours later with the bill, the customer may be invited to watch the actual work being done. This transparency is the power of the “Smart Glasses” solution, facilitated by the new mobility-based tech culture.
Smart Glasses are a happy disruption, arriving at just the right moment in the skilled-worker shortage emergency. This new wearable technology also stands to revolutionize quality of service as a metric. The well-meaning junior tech in the field making career-slowing and client-upsetting errors on the job––that may just be a thing of the past. The merging of junior and senior field expertise through the collaborative tech of media-streaming eyewear means a shared skill-set when and where it’s needed. This partner-enabled work at hand may be streamed in from remote locations virtually anywhere around the globe.
Smart Glasses also win in the “marketing side-effect” category. Because the streamed worksite videos may be captured and stored, these crystal-clear recordings can make for a superlative archive/catalog of the work done. These video files would be sortable by date, location, type of work, or simply by file name. Whether the video records are used to instruct future trainees, sell the service to prospects, or both, the powerful fact of a detailed video library of a company’s services actually being performed––it’s priceless as both a marketing tool and guarantee of product quality.
A company could produce a video channel on the Internet that neatly categorizes and summarizes the services offered. Implicit in this video “menu of service choices” would be a built-in suggestion of product integrity. A service provider willing to show its workers in the act of providing billable service in precise visual and audio detail––it’s a bridge-builder.
Smart Glasses used in this manner effectively remove the barrier that has historically been central to the provider-customer transaction. That building of trust in the transaction could actually prove to be one of the biggest and most game-changing benefits of the coming Smart Glasses era. This is technology that, far from having an isolating effect on people (a common complaint about the Digital Age) actually engenders trust.
But to get back to Lee Company -- the 73 year-old outfit is today going strong, and should be congratulated for its far-sightedness in seeking, and then so confidently leveraging, a modern tech solution that seems more in line with the thinking of a much younger company. Seventy-three years ago, 1943 at this writing, was one year before Harvard University’s Howard Aiken built a little something called the Mark I; a 35-ton NON-wearable computer, one of the very first. We’ve come a long way. Thanks to innovations like Smart Glasses and innovators like Lee Company, we’re just getting started.
skilled labor shortage
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