Sheet metal training centers embrace technology with TotalTrack

Database system creates efficiency, puts information into staff, student hands

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, is currently mid-way through a system-wide launch of TotalTrack, a comprehensive database system that puts all apprentice and training journeymen information in one place in an easy-to-use interface. The system puts ITI on the forefront of technology in the unionized building trades and allows instructors, coordinators and students the ability to not only access their information, but communicate on a different level. By the end of 2011, approximately 70 of the 160 training centers will be transitioned to TotalTrack – 30 centers beyond the original goal. All 160 centers will be on board by 2013.

Data Research Group out of Culpeper, Va. picked up the project in March 2010. With a contact management system already in place, tailoring it to ITI’s needs didn’t take much time, and beta testing began four months later. In February, training centers were migrating to the new system as part of a nationwide schedule.

Some centers’ previous systems were more antiquated than others, using all sorts of ways to track their apprentices. TotalTrack is Internet based, allowing easier integration due to lack of installations and/or system upgrades. The same system allows for efficiency nationwide and better communication between centers and with the ITI.

Most centers use similar forms, and with TotalTrack, the forms will be the same from center to center. If a center requires a different form, the coordinator works with Data Research Group to create the customization.

“Every time we came into a training center, we looked at where the legacy information was coming from and we’d institute a plan for migration strategy,” said Ed Burg, CEO of Data Research Group. “A lot of business practices, where they are different and unique, have similar needs.”

One need all the centers have is for updated curricula, which is used in each class throughout the year. Each series of courses contains related lesson plans, documents and assignments. From TotalTrack, each training center can copy a specific curriculum and modify it to suit the specific needs of its teachers and students.

“The long-term plan for the curricula is to develop as much as possible at an international level, so that it can be easily appropriated or used at the training center level,” Burg said.

For less-than-tech-savvy centers, the TotalTrack was a challenge to integrate but not a difficult one. In San Diego at Local #206, the transition went well and was relatively easy, according to Ken Lavigne, training center coordinator.

“This is like going to QuickBooks from having a hand-written ledger,” Lavigne added. “It gives us what we had before and a lot more, and we’re still learning. It’s tailored directly to us, which is great.”

The learning curve is increased in baby steps as tweaks come online. In the near future, instructors and coordinators will be able to text message students directly from the system to notify them of schedule changes or homework updates. The average age of a sheet metal apprentice in the United States is 27, which means they likely grew up using technology such as computers, email and text messaging.

“Things around here change a lot,” said Jeff Proffitt, full-time instructor at Local #88 in Las Vegas. “It’s easier to get ahold of the students, to manage their grades and coincide with the community college. It matches up with the college and what they’re doing really well.”

On the flip side, it allows instructors to plan ahead, avoiding changes, by allowing them to plan out their class schedules at the beginning of every semester. This way, instructors and students have access to all the information ahead of time. The system also allows for instructors to input grades, where office staff had to assist with it in the past.

“We had adequate software before, but it was dated. It was time to go to the more technical side,” Proffitt said. “For the most part, it’s made us more efficient as an office, that’s for sure. We’re slowing but surely getting rid of filing cabinets.”

In San Diego, putting more responsibility on the students frees time for instructors and coordinators.

“Having 22 apprentices enter their information instead of one person entering information 22 times is much easier,” Lavigne said. Part-time instructors who are only at the center for evening classes can now enter their information instead of having office staff input it. With TotalTrack, they’re all on the same page. “It really brings everyone together. With a click of a button, it’s done.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Alexandria,Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI, visit www.sheetmetal-iti.org or call 703-739-7200.

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