Auckland-based JBA had a promising pipeline of clients for its virtual-reality based training modules when the Herald last checked in late last year.
Founder and chief executive James Coddington said the construction sector was 55,000 people short - and he saw virtual reality (VR) as the key to accelerating recruitment and training in a bid to plug the gap.
The idea was that training could be jump-started by, say, one trainer in Auckland wrangling six trainees around the country, all wearing VR goggles and sharing the same training scenario - say, how to operate a digger.
Or a recruiter could use the same VR technology to put job candidates in different locations through their paces as they attempt the same virtual task.
It was all looking promising, especially with VR rigs like the Oculus Quest falling in cost to a few hundred dollars.
But then came Covid.
On day two of April's alert level 4 lockdown, Coddington fielded 30 emails from corporate customers asking to put everything on hold because they didn't know where they were going to be.
He saw his revenue stream of up to $1 million a month dry up to nothing and at the same time had 46 staff wanting to know if they still had a job.
On day three, Coddington went to his bank (BNZ) and asked for $1 million to cover the cost of his staff for six months.
He wanted to be able to give them the assurance that they had a job for six months.
Within two days, the bank said he would be granted the working capital and he sent a video to his staff saying, "I know it's tough. I know your partners are going through some tough times, but I can guarantee you have a job for six months."
JBA also received $492,000 in wage subsidies and extensions for some 39 staff.
Coddington set his team the task of creating a series of standardised VR training modules.
But to do what, with contracts drying up?
The problem was that on the face of things, trades-training via virtual reality makes sense for a socially-distanced, often locked-down world.
But it also involves a lot of up-front costs for a client who wants customised content - at a time when many are being forced to slash spending.
Coddington's response was to shift JBA's focus away from bespoke efforts to creating standardised learning modules in a "Skills VR" series that can be used by multiple companies in multiple industries - all to NZQA standards.
After all, skills and procedures for working at height, working in confined spaces or identifying hazardous substances are the same, whoever you work for.
Coddington says staff have been working up to 18-hour days to turn out the modules. The first three have just been released in a series that will probably run to 20.
An instalment on first aid is in the works.
Coddington claims the Skills VR series is cheaper than traditional trades training - and that because of the lack of travel, setup and waiting for individuals to take a turn, can pack what usually takes a day or a day and a half into 30 minutes.
He says some of the time-saving comes from the fact that when everything is laid out for you in a virtual reality environment, with a trainer talking to you via an earpiece, there's less need for theory.
He says the VR setup also suits individuals with low literacy or language challenges - a continuing factor as skills shortages persist in some areas even amid the pandemic.
JBA's bespoke business isn't entirely sidelined, either, with two major offshore projects now in a pilot phase.
The Department of Education in Australia is rolling out a trial of the technology across New South Wales schools, to enliven maths and English and enable virtual excursions, and the Smithsonian Institution in the US is about to launch a programme across its museums to use VR to help educate and reform water security as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Local outfits using JBA's VR solutions for safety and compliance include CCNZ (Civil Contractors New Zealand), Fulton Hogan, Orion, OneStaff and Branigans.
CCNZ communications adviser Fraser May says, "The opportunity to test the VR experience with career seekers was offered to CCNZ as part of a pilot introduction to civil construction. Career seekers went through the VR traffic control and earthmoving experiences, providing detailed feedback. Overall, the session was an outstanding success. It was well received by career seekers and employers. Building the VR experience into a broader introduction to civil construction worked, and the VR experience complimented an introductory workshop setting well."
Coddington says JBA changed its way of working, and what it works on. It's now focusing exclusively on training via VR, and is now hiring again with that in mind.
"Leadership is shown in stormy waters not on blue sky days. It is what happens when your back is against the wall is what defines you as a human being," the JBA boss says.
"Businesses only have a matter of time until their reinvention needs to be complete when the government taps are turned off," he adds.
"Never waste a good crisis – the businesses that are going to come out of this are going to come out stronger, leaner and more ready to take on the world than ever before. On the other side, people will continue to have their heads in the sand and you see it in some of NZ's biggest businesses. We as a country have a fabulous opportunity to reinvent ourselves."