Virtual reality workforce development training offered at Kenai Peninsula College

The workshop targets young employees who may benefit from additional assistance to advancing education and careers

Nine Star Education and Employment Services is scheduled to offer an artificial intelligence virtual reality workshop at the Kenai Peninsula College Campus on March 29.

The workshop targets young employees, approximately aged 16 to 24, who are not in school or have graduated but face various barriers and may benefit from additional assistance to advancing education and careers. The course will provide techniques for workforce development.

According to Rhapsody Soderberg, the youth employment specialist at Nine Star, these barriers include things such autism, other disabilities and challenges with social and communication skills that might be relevant to a job search. Soderberg spends a lot of time with clients helping them construct resumes and looking for employment. Some of the locations she mentioned as potential sources of employment included Kenai Peninsula Construction Academy in Kenai or Alaska peer support specialist certifications.

“It seems like any time I mention training where clients have to go out of town, it could be a hardship,” Soderberg said. “If they’re working at all, they have to ask for time off and then they have to deal travel, how to get food, how to find a place to stay. For some people, Anchorage seems like a very big city compared to Homer and some have never left the community.”

The organization can also help youth secure driver’s licenses and put them on the Nine Star payroll. “I can approach places like the Homer Library, KBBI or the Pratt Museum, places with a relatively calm and local work environment to help people find work experience in internships just to learn how to deal with a cash drawer if they’ve never done it,” Soderberg said.

Internship training and employment skills are very important. Youth like them and respond well to them and it’s something they can add to their resume, she said.

Soderberg has a master’s degree in special education and during her time in school, recalled some research on Walmart’s use of virtual reality headsets to train employees. VR headsets are used to immerse trainees in different scenarios that might come up at work to learn communication skills. According to Soderberg, it is a training method that has expanded dramatically since about 2019 for employment fields such as health care, military, police departments and school districts.

“Here in Homer, I know that the maritime helicopter mechanic Steve Slade is using a VR headset to take 360-degree images of the helicopter so he can train people by watching the videos he creates. He inspired me to look into the idea for the workforce and demographic,” she said.

The University of Alaska Kenai River Campus already has a course structured in small engine repair that uses VR headsets and so does NACTEC, the Nome vocational school. NACTEC uses equipment called DesignOri and following that example, that’s the equipment Soderberg has looked at most extensively as well.

With these two Alaska campuses offering training programs, Soderberg decided to approach the KPC campus and see if they would be amenable to offering a short workshop as pilot project in conjunction with Nine Star. They agreed and Soderberg has been working with Michelle Waclawski, the adult education coordinator and instructor on the campus, to help with the workshop.

“She’s been really helpful. She’s also in that ‘100 women who care’ group and I would like to apply to them for funding to secure some more VR headsets for our organization once I work out some more details,” Soderberg said.

The VR workshop at the college will take place in the upstairs conference room from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on March 29. Soderberg is planning to organize it so that participants are grouped by industry interest. Lunch will be included also. Registration is not necessary.

“I will start the workshop by talking about workforce development and meeting community and training needs and then Nathan Spence with DesignOri will provide example models of the headsets, let participants try them on and see how the VR training process works,” she said.