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The pandemic disrupted businesses around the globe, but many have learned to adapt and even improve their existing processes. Andy Shaughnessy recently spoke with Jamie Noland of Blackfox Training Institute about some of the lessons learned from COVID-19 and how the company has adapted and developed new ways of training its students.
Andy Shaughnessy: With me today is Jamie Noland, master IPC trainer with Blackfox Training Institute. How are you doing, Jamie?
Jamie Noland: Very good. Thank you.
Shaughnessy: Why don’t you give us a quick background about yourself?
Noland: I am a master IPC trainer in all six of the IPC training and certification programs, and for Blackfox, I am our marketing manager. I do a little bit of both there, a little bit of training and a little bit of office work for Blackfox. In addition to that, I’m on the IPC training and certification committees, and very involved in the creation of the IPC training programs as well as a few of the document committees for creating and modifying IPC’s documents.
Shaughnessy: Great. Tell us about how Blackfox has weathered COVID-19. How did you all react at the very beginning of the pandemic?
Noland: It was a very, very abrupt slowdown, and I’m sure it was that way for a lot of people. About mid-March when that shoe dropped, no one was sure exactly what to do as we had training on the books for months and a lot of our students like to schedule in advance for our classes.
For a good part of March and April we really didn’t do very much in the way of training. Most of us worked from home during that time and as far as the actual training of students went, we really weren’t able to do much. In April, IPC came up with a way to certify students remotely, and that helped us get back into training. Things really looked up from there. During the first two months though, it was a very abrupt slowdown, but we did make it through.
Shaughnessy: It seems like Blackfox is almost back to some semblance of normal, correct? You have in-person classes now, if I understand it.
Noland: Things started to come back relatively to normal around July of last year. Since then, we are doing a healthy mix of online remote certification and in-person certification. For our remote training, we use a video conferencing tool to deliver the actual training, and then instructors schedule exams that are proctored remotely without the instructor having to be in the room with the students. We are conducting quite a bit of that worldwide. In addition, we’ve opened up our training centers for in-person training, at least the ones in the United States and in Mexico. We are limiting the number of students that we allow in our classrooms. Before the pandemic, we would max out our classes at about 12 students and right now we’re at six, so that allows us to properly space the students out in the classroom during training. With proper precautions, we are currently operating in person and online.
Shaughnessy: And this is for all the different certification programs?
Noland: For most of them. The online certification programs are not available for hands-on certifications that require some sort of soldering or hands-on technique to be demonstrated, but all the lecture-based courses are available remotely online.
Shaughnessy: So, how did you coordinate this with IPC, since they’re IPC classes?
Noland: It took quite a bit of planning. IPC did a lot of work on their part to allow for the remote testing for their certification programs. In the past, all testing was required to be performed in person with an actual instructor in the classroom, or in the room with the students, while they tested. But for remote certification, IPC found a third-party solution that essentially uses the student’s computer to proctor the exam. It uses the student’s webcam and microphones and locks down all the other software running on their computer except for the exam. This is just in the hope of having a consistent and protected certification program.
Shaughnessy: Wow. It’s great that you all could just switch on a dime like that.
Noland: Yes, it was. IPC did a great job adjusting their model for this remote training. Then training centers like Blackfox had to adjust how we marketed our classes to manufacturers and how we presented our classes to students. It took a lot of planning. A lot of thought went into how we would go about switching from an in-person model to a mostly online model in those beginning months.
Shaughnessy: Right. You still have the in-person training going on and you still have people traveling, correct?
Noland: Yes, we do. Blackfox trainers have always traveled a lot, obviously, to go in-person and onsite to our customers’ locations, so that’s always been a big part of our business. It makes more financial sense to have one trainer travel to a company to train, let’s say 15 students, than it would if those 15 students traveled to one of our training facilities. Travel is still a big part of what our trainers do, and we maintain that today for the companies that are critical and need that kind of on-site certification.
Shaughnessy: Right. You announced a while back that you now have trainers pretty much all around the country. So, they were fairly close to all the big areas where they might have to go and do some training.
Noland: Yes. We have trainers situated worldwide, actually. Many in the U.S., several in Mexico, Singapore, and Malaysia as well. So, we try to strategically have our trainers there, near the hotspots for electronics manufacturing.
Shaughnessy: Right. How is it in Mexico and some of the other countries? What’s the situation there like?
Noland: In some of the countries in SE Asia, such as Singapore and Malaysia where we have our training centers and trainers, not much in-person training is going on there. They still have a lot of restrictions that don’t allow for in-person certification. They are performing a lot of online certifications, so our trainers are still busy there. But in Mexico, it’s pretty much like the United States. We have a very healthy mix of online certifications and in-person instruction in North America.
Shaughnessy: Right. These are mainly the people who work at the maquiladoras?
Noland: Yes, and they’re staying quite busy. We see a pretty equal mix of online training to in-person training going on in Mexico, just like the United States.
Shaughnessy: What does that entail? How do you set up social distancing in the classrooms? Do you just have certain tables that are blocked off?
Noland: Yes, we have removed some chairs from all Blackfox classrooms. Normally we’d have enough seating for 12 to 15 students, but now we limit them to six. We’ve spaced all the tables and work benches apart. If we have equipment that is used during the training procedures, such as soldering equipment and rework equipment, we will space them at least six feet from another station. And when the trainers are in the room, of course, they are also keeping their distance as much as they can from the students. We have adopted mask-wearing in all of our locations when we are inside classrooms because you’re basically stuck in the classroom for about eight hours each day in a pretty confined space. But we have taken every precaution, and our classrooms are quite large in the first place, so having a total of just seven people in a room, there’s still plenty of room inside those classrooms.
Shaughnessy: Are your instructors trying to get vaccinated?
Noland: Yes. We’re following all of the local state’s guidelines for vaccination. And unfortunately, I don’t think our instructors fall under a lot of the K-12 education guidelines that a lot of states are prioritizing, but I do believe that we’ll fall under some of the manufacturing and higher education timelines for the vaccination distribution.
Shaughnessy: Well, it sounds like you made the best of a difficult situation. You’re actually improving your processes along the way.
Noland: We have, yes. And in new ways. I think that the online training also opened a lot of avenues for people internationally to attend classes. Just this week, I was teaching an IPC-6012 class, which is all about bare circuit board fabrication and the processing quality that goes behind that. I had students from around the world in that class. In the past, they probably wouldn’t have traveled to the United States to attend the class just because it was cost prohibitive. But to fire up a Zoom meeting at 2 a.m. actually worked well for them. The pandemic has opened up avenues, I believe, for additional students to attend the training and the certification programs that wouldn’t have been able to in the past.
Shaughnessy: You said that a lot of these certification programs have been revised and released. Tell us a little bit about that.
Noland: Most of IPC’s standards get revised about every three to five years or so, especially the ones that have certification programs associated with them. 2020 and 2021 just happened to be two years that five of the six certification program documents came due for revision. Early last year, we probably had our very last meeting at APEX 2020 in San Diego, an in-person meeting, right before the COVID pandemic hit. Since then, every single meeting has been virtual or online through video conferencing, yet we were still able to get all the standards revised. We’re still able to get the training materials updated, proofed, and distributed. I don’t think we’ve really skipped a beat transitioning from in-person meetings to virtual or online meetings when it comes to the IPC committees.
Shaughnessy: And IPC was starting to do more of their meetings on WebEx or Zoom before COVID hit, so that dovetailed nicely.
Noland: Yes. It works out pretty well. I think a lot of people still prefer the in-person meetings because it’s nice to have that face to face time, but in the event of a pandemic, this has actually worked out very, very well and we’ve stayed right on schedule.
Shaughnessy: That’s good to hear. What would you say are some of the biggest lessons that you learned out of this whole thing?
Noland: I think one of them is just learning about hygiene and just how many germs are spread every single day. I mean, we’ve always kept very clean classrooms as far as Blackfox is concerned, but I think this has really put a big emphasis on making sure that everyone is as clean as possible and washing their hands. I think that’s a huge lesson that everyone has taken from this. And in close-contact classroom settings that can only make things better down the road after the pandemic. I believe that training and certification in classroom settings will be a cleaner and more hygienic practice in the future.
Shaughnessy: I’m hearing that more and more. “Wow, we’ve really dialed things in over the last nine months of working from home.” And it sounds like you guys are coming out of it in a pretty good spot.
Noland: Yes. And a company like Blackfox that’s a training center can only do well when our customers do well, because they’re not going to be paying for training if they’re not doing well. So, we’re very reflective of how well the manufacturing industry is doing as a whole. I think when we’re doing well, that means that companies are investing and spending on training and education for their employees. We’ve also found a few companies that have little bit of extra downtime going on. Some of that is due to the pandemic, and some of it is due to the semiconductor shortage that’s going on right now. Companies may have extra time to allow production employees to get off the shop floor and are taking advantage of the downtime to send their students for training and certification.
Shaughnessy: Right. Is there anything else you want to add?
Noland: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s about it.
Shaughnessy: Okay, great. Thanks for speaking with me, Jamie. I hope to meet you in person someday.
Noland: Same here. Thank you for your time.