Package handlers who work on FedEx Ground loading docks load and unload 8.5 million packages a day. The volume and the physical nature of the work make it a tough job—tougher than many new hires realize until they do it. Some quit almost immediately, according to Denise Abbott, FedEx Ground’s vice president of human resources.
So, when FedEx Corp.’s truck package delivery division evaluated how best to incorporate virtual reality into employee training, teaching newly hired package handlers what to expect on the job and how to stay safe doing it quickly rose to the top of the list.
“It allows us to bring an immersive learning technology into the classroom so people can practice before they step foot on a dock,” said Jefferson Welch, human resource director for FedEx Ground University, the division’s training arm. He and Abbott talked about the company’s foray into VR-based training during a presentation at the recent HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.
Using VR to train employees isn’t new. Pilots have relied on sophisticated immersive simulations for decades to learn how to fly. But in recent years, cheaper, lightweight VR technology and customizable end-to-end VR training systems have made such programs more affordable and easier to use in a variety of corporate settings. “There’s nothing that replaces a simulation where you’re in the job immersed in the environment, and this technology does it,” Welch said.
FedEx Ground wasn’t hard pressed for volunteers to test VR training—every department wanted in, Abbott said. FedEx Ground HR and training managers worked with safety and other business units to come up with objectives for the new training program that included curbing turnover, improving safety, cutting costs, and changing employees’ negative perception of orientation, which was widely called “bor-ientation,” she said.
To create a training plan, FedEx Ground partnered with Strivr, a VR training systems vendor begun by a former Stanford University football player who worked with sports teams before pivoting to sell to corporate customers such as Walmart, BMW, and Verizon.
FedEx Ground initially rolled out VR training in a small pilot. Because trainers were able to track where people in the headsets focused their eyes, they realized that many employees were looking in the wrong place during simulations of loading and unloading packages, which could lead to safety issues. “That right there is when we were sold,” Welch said.
Eighteen months into FedEx Ground’s VR-training experiment, the reception has been “overpowering,” Welch said. New employees don’t want to take off the VR equipment. They ask to stay after work for extra practice. One trainee told Welch he couldn’t wait to go home and tell his 13-year-old that he used VR at work. “We’re already seeing it on the docks. Managers are seeing more knowledgeable, safer employees,” Welch said. Because loading-dock managers also go through VR training, more people are now interested in those roles, he said.
Based on early data the company has collected, VR training had resulted in a “notable” improvement in what people retain from what they’re taught, Abbott said. The company is still compiling data on VR-related cost savings, she said.
FedEx Ground executives didn’t disclose their VR training budget. But Strivr CEO Derek Belch said customized, end-to-end VR training systems include costs associated with creating a strategy, designing and producing curriculum, setting up equipment and training employees to use it, and analyzing training results. One-time prices for building content for a single training course can range from US $40,000 to $500,000, and ongoing software costs could run anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars depending on a project’s scale, he said.
Strivr customers that have used VR training for several years have seen it pay off in reducing the time needed for training and improving retention levels, Belch said. Walmart, for example, shrank one training that previously took eight hours to about 20 minutes “and the learning is just as impactful,” he said. “Plus, it’s what younger employees are craving.”