JBA founder and CEO James Coddington says the construction sector is currently 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 Ministry of Social Development came onboard six months ago to back his proposal. So did six companies in the construction sector.

A dozen JBA (Joy Business Acadamy) software developers and social scientists then worked on a programme for six months, creating the Skills for Industry Virtual Reality Training and Employment Tool that was launched today.

Others are already into vocational VR. In the US, Walmart recently purchased 100,000 VR headsets (or "rigs") for inhouse training.

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But JBA chief executive and founder James Coddington says his company's tool is the first to offer a "multiplayer" feature.

That is, one job applicant could be in Porirua, and a second in Northland, with the pair linked in one VR environment online, both competing to complete the same task for a recruiter in a third location.

"It is also an important tool to engage those who may have great screen or game literacy but poor traditional literacy or numeracy. Untethered VR accommodates different learning styles and learners who have developed compensatory skills in place of literacy can leverage their abilities to train and qualify for employment," the JBA founder says.

A JBA staffer tests the companies new trades training software using an
A JBA staffer tests the companies new trades training software using an "untethered" VR rig.

Coddington says another breakthrough is the wireless, relatively lowcost headsets his company is using for its trial, which come from Facebook-owned Oculus in San Francisco - another JBA partner in its vocational VR programme.

The first-person view from inside an Oculus headset running JBA's VR training tool.
The first-person view from inside an Oculus headset running JBA's VR training tool.

The Oculus Quest costs around $600, or a quarter the cost of early full-featured VR rigs, is featherweight and does not require a cord connecting it to a laptop (although

If you've never worn a virtual reality headset, it immerses you into a 3D, 360-degree world. It's not The Matrix - the graphics way below that level - but it still has quite a wow-factor.

It can't be too educational, because it will be boring, and it can't be too fun and playful, because it won't have educational outcomes, so that's really tough and we have to do a lot of testing.

Experts from the likes of Hawkins, Downer, Fletcher Construction, plus social scientists on JBA's staff, have been involved in creating scenarios for the new VR tools.

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Above and below: two people - in the same room or different cities - can
Above and below: two people - in the same room or different cities - can "multiplay" on the same assessment task for a facilitator in a third location.
Two contenders
Two contenders "multiplay."

Coddington says the companies are often trying to recruit from a pool of people with language or learning difficulties, which VR helps to overcome.

And he says it also helps with practical training. Skill up on a VR digger, using wireless paddles hand-held paddles and a headset, and you're much less likely to crash and damage a $300,000 construction hardware the first time you use in real-life. Muscle memory kicks in, the same as if you'd been using a flight simulator.

JBA founder and CEO James Coddington.
JBA founder and CEO James Coddington.

Minister for Social Development Hon Carmel Sepuloni says the government is committed to upskilling and training people on benefit and this virtual reality tool makes training more accessible and saves time and money.

"Jobseekers can try out tasks like driving a dump truck by using the virtual headset. They can make an informed decision about whether it's a job they'll like to pursue before going on expensive training courses. These tools also work well for some people where mainstream education doesn't, particularly for those with limited literacy and numeracy skills," Carmel Sepuloni said.

Otago physiology grad Coddington came to software via winter sports (he was CEO of sky field operator NZSki for six years) and an ice cream startup.

JBA initially offered stock-standard e-learning, before it's founder clocked to the fact a little gamification was in order.

His company partnered with Trade Me and MSD to create a gamified candidate assessment tool, then partnered with accounting giant BDO to create the "Tycoon series of games - Restaurant Tycoon, Tech Tycoon and Construction Tycoon. You progress through each by picking up financial literacy and business skills.

Along the way, blue-chip customers like Xero, BNZ and ASB have used JBA tools to help train their staff.

Coddington says the move into VR was a natural progression.

The privately-held business has boosted numbers from 30 to 50 over the past few months, and Coddington says rapid expansion means it will shortly have to abandon its Parnell office for larger digs.