forklift simulator-interview-andrew-stone-wide

Interview with Andrew Stone, Consultant at Impac

In preparation for National Forklift Safety Day 2022 (NFSD2022) Forklift Simulator has been sitting down to chat with some of our clients. Client Chats gives FLS users the opportunity to tell their safety stories to the FLS community. Over the next few weeks leading up to NFSD2022 and beyond, look for more conversations to come.

This week we spoke with Andrew Stone. He is General manager of VR Competencies at Impac, a workplace safety firm in Auckland, New Zealand. He has worked with the government of New Zealand to develop a forklift training program for unemployed and under-resourced members of the community.

In honor of his innovative work, Forklift Simulator has nominated him to be the recipient of the First Annual Golden (VR) Goggles Award. After reading his multilayered interview, we think you’ll agree that what he is achieving with our simulators is groundbreaking.

Congratulations Andrew!

So just start by telling me what your name is and the name of your organization.

Andrew Stone: So my name is Andrew Stone, and I work at a company called Impact.

FLS: And where are you located?

Andrew: Our company is centered in Auckland, New Zealand. And has worked throughout the country.

And who are some of the companies that you work with around there?

Andrew: That people might know? The New Zealand government, Fisher & Paykel healthcare, large pharmaceutical manufacturers, the transport company. You know, many large companies in New Zealand that globally are less well known because we’re so small.

FLS: And so when you’re working with these different companies, the way I understand it is you’re a third party consultancy that specializes in forklift safety And as far as I can tell, well, first of all, is that correct?

Andrew: Yes.

FLS: OK. So I did get that right. Great. And so what services or products do you offer the companies that you consult with?

Andrew: First of all, the obvious: consulting, which might take the form of an audit but often is a response to a question or an incident around optimal forklift operations. So they find they inefficient or they find they are potentially unsafe and want to do something about it and would like an independent third party expert perspective. So that’s how we usually start working with companies.

And then through that, throughout that problem, at the heart of most problems we find are people. Either we have the wrong people or we don’t have the right skilled people.

And we for a long time didn’t know what to do about that. So much.

Well, that actually brings me to my next question, which is specifically, what are some of the top challenges that you see with forklift safety when you go into these site evaluations?

Andrew: Yes, sure.

The first and largest challenge is having the right skilled people in the right job.

The second one is sustaining the rules around safe operations. You might set a rule, but how do you keep that in place? You know, three months later, at two in the morning on a Saturday, when no one else is around.

And so how do you approach these issues? Especially and specifically how do you approach what you say is finding “the right people” or keeping the right people in the position.

Andrew: But our approach to it is that they possibly have the right people, but they’ve got the wrong context to hold them. Traditionally in New Zealand, the forklift operator is a low skilled, low paid job with no career progression. And we’ve found through our work over recent years that if we actually listen to the existing staff, teach them some real competencies and give them a career development pathway, that they become more professional and they step forward and want to own the responsibility that comes from being a highly skilled operator.

So that’s the focus of our work.

OK, and so what changes have you seen in providing this kind of training? Or opportunities, I guess you might say?

Andrew: Yeah. So providing the training work that we do, the best outcome is seen broadly as the team, the operators beginning to take the ownership of safety on these sites.

If they are professional and they’re skilled, they take the lead, as opposed to following the rules imposed by management.

Instead of, ‘I will do this because the boss said,’ they’re saying ‘No, that’s not the way we do it here. We will do it to the best standard we know how.’ And they hold each other to account rather than a supervisor or a manager overseeing them and holding them to account.

I think this is really interesting because you’re empowering them, but how do you get them there? I mean, what is the sort of process that you go through? I mean, it’s not just going to be a matter of saying you’re in charge now, so go.

Andrew: Not at all. First of all, understanding this skill base and respecting that and improving that, allowing them the chance to improve, to show their skill base and improve it and lift it, and then show them there is a pathway to go down where they can become more and more professional and skillful and their operations. so they can build through the curriculum, if you like, to achieve a higher and higher professional standing that is recognized independently.

I think the human being wants that generally. They want that chance to strive to succeed, to improve and demonstrate their worth And we’re working on the idea that that’s a human characteristic. And it doesn’t matter what your skin color or gender or religious persuasion is, that actually that’s a fairly common thing. You respect the skill base and competencies and show them ways to continue to expand or improve those you know, they’ll take up the challenge if they don’t want to.

That’s fine, too. But at least we know exactly where they’re at.

And so you mentioned that you’re working with the New Zealand government. In what way? I mean, we don’t usually think of the New Zealand government as being a hot spot for forklift use. So how exactly are you working with them?

Andrew: Yeah, well New Zealand has an unemployment rate of 3.4%, that means 3.4% of the population have no job and no skills that are employable. Apparently. So I, you know, I scratched my head because I know we’ve got a shortage of decent forklift operators and you know, fundamentally forklift operations are a skill, but they’re not a wildly difficult skill.

It’s not literally rocket science or brain surgery or something. You know, it’s something you can learn and it’s a profession you can develop. But it wasn’t being taken up.

The skills shortage was definitely there. So I went to government agencies and said, ‘well, look for those folks who are finding it difficult to get a position in the employment marketplace, how about we upskill them?

So that we can prove they’re competent to fulfill these jobs, which employers are struggling to find people for?’

And the government allowed me to test that idea and paid for me to run some pilots to say, ‘Hey, we’ll take some long term unemployed people, for example, or some guys fresh out of jail and teach them the competencies and prove their competencies to employers and at the same time prove their willingness to learn and the attitude to work.’

And I wanted to prove that the employers would take them and fill those roles that they were desperate to fill. And it turns out I was right and if you’ve got the competency and you’ve got the attitude, it doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances were. What matters is what you can bring to the job today? And tomorrow. For tonight shift and next week shift. That’s what matters to employers. And it turned out that these folks actually wanted someone to invest a little bit of effort into giving them skills. So they had some leverage in the employment market. In the past, they had no leverage. They had low paid, low skilled casual jobs at lowest wage.

And suddenly we gave them skills that were in demand. And the world changed. And that’s how we work with the New Zealand government learning those skills.

And so when we talk about empowering these unemployed, sometimes I think you mentioned ex-cons, coming back into the workforce, how are you doing it? What does your training system look like?

FLS: Because now I’m starting to see sort of two tracks here. On the one hand, you’re working with the companies, giving them the site evaluations and giving them some consultations.

And on the other hand, you’re training unemployed ex-prisoners and other groups that may be underprivileged or under-resourced.

So we’ve gone from consulting, looking at the business side. And now tell me about your training program.

Andrew: Yeah. Cool. First, I’ll provide you a bridge between the two to make a link. The employers were complaining to me all the time that they couldn’t find enough competent new operators for their forklifts and they didn’t know how to solve it. And it was a source of immense frustration. And I said to them, well, what if we could create them?

What if we could find people who weren’t previously competent? We train them and prove that they’re competent. Would you employ them? And they said, Sure, but we don’t think you can do it. But we did it.

FLS: Challenge accepted.

Andrew: Yeah. You got it. Lock and load, baby. Here we come.

So during the course for these folks who have been long term, you know…poor jobs or no jobs…we put them in quite a long course. Like it’s a ten day course. The forklift piece of that is three or four days. And it’s another three or four days of assorted work or skills that are related to forklift operations.

Like health and safety, like materials handling skills, you know, theory behind what we’re doing. And then the last third is getting them ready for work, making sure they have a good CV, making sure they know what an interview is and how to conduct themselves, and then putting them into those interview situations. And during the course, we get them job offers.

So on the Monday of week one, they might have been, you know, two years unemployed or, you know, one month out of prison. Then we run the first five days. They have the weekend off and then back the next Monday. By the Thursday of that second week, we want them to have job offers in their hands. And most of them will get at least one. Some will get many job offers, as the employers buzz around and select from the group. Wow.

FLS: And so then you’re providing sort of a general employment, education. It sounds like it isn’t only focused on forklift operation. Well, it sounds like there are some other options going on.

Andrew: Yeah, there are. There are. We mix in a whole lot of stuff, to be honest with you, Joseph. But the key skill that gives them more leverage in the employment market is the forklift competency, because many, most employers have a forklift somewhere in their operation. And if I have a new guy, say, my production line, he’s got nothing to do with four plus but the forklift drivers of today, who do I tend to rather than getting a temporary expensive contract labor force.

And I can just pull off the production line, that new guy I got from Andrew’s course and slot them on the machine because I know he’s good to go. And that makes them more valuable and it gives him an advantage in the employment recruitment moment because he’s got an extra skill set and competency that will be valuable to the employer.

And so what does the training look like for forklift competency?

Andrew: Yeah, cool. So it’s a mix of three things. One is the theory underlying forklifts and how to use them. The other is virtual reality forklift simulators where we intensely teach them the process of operating forklift. And the third component is a real foklift.

So we blend those three together to produce at an astounding rate of learning. Absolutely astounding.

FLS: And you’re saying you can get there in ten days.

Andrew: Oh, look, I can get them passing the competency test of any forklift license in the world within three days.

FLS: In three days?

Andrew: We get them independently assessed at the end of day three by an external company. An assessment company for forklift operators. And that company says all our guys come through the equivalent of a one year experienced forklift operator after three days.

And so during those three days, you’re doing theory, VR simulation and real forklift use. How much of that time is done in the virtual reality?

Andrew: About two and a half hours. So 150 minutes or so.

FLS: Wow. And you use, you use…

Andrew: It’s called Forklift Simulator, but FLS is my nickname for them. They’re from Belgium. From Antwerp. It’s absolutely a world leading product. That technology. It’s a fantastic teaching tool.

FLS: And by the way, we never said, when did you start this program.

Andrew: Let’s see, what are we now? So it started 18 months ago, a year and a half ago.

And how many students have you seen come through?

Andrew: 340 or so.

FLS: Wow. So OK, so let’s bring it back a little bit full circle now. You’re going to these companies consulting them on their safety. Now you’re training forklift operators.

And Now you go back to the companies. And so are you seeing changes in their safety and are they conforming more to those best practices that you sort of mentioned in the beginning?

Andrew: The feedback I get from the employers is that the people who come off our course are more dependable to follow safe practice so they will more consistently use the correct safe procedure to do the job, even when under pressure from production timeframes or under pressure from their peers or whatever it might be, they tend to revert to good process, almost always.

And it’s unusual to find that they are the cause of an incident of any type.

So you’re seeing data shifting in terms of those incidences?

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. We’re beginning to hear from companies that are willing to share the data. They’re saying exactly that. It’s early days, it’s only eighteen months for our first employers and so on. But the trend is excellent and it supports what we believed was possible with comprehensive training, particularly with the VR piece in the middle of it, which is where the process gets broken down and taught so very rigorously. The feedback we’re getting from employers and the data that we’ve seen has absolutely supported our contention that it is more safe.

We create more safe operators because of this method of training.

So let’s talk about that. When it comes to forklift simulator is this the first VR product that you’ve used?

Andrew: Yes.

And how did you come to choose that particular simulator?

Andrew: Um, I had seen ones that I regarded as entertainment value only and my research when I found the affiliate product I called some of the customers in the US without equally knowing and asked their experience was it consistent with what the marketing said? And they confirmed it. So then I found that there was one only 4 hours flight away.

So I bought a ticket and went to that customer and stayed on this site for three days and watched it in action. And I saw that the results were as advertised, if you know what I mean. And the product is absolutely unique in the simulator market because I have investigated every option I possibly could in forklift simulation, and nothing, nothing could promise what this product does, let alone deliver it.

It was frankly, mind blowing that such learning outcomes could be achieved in the way that they promised.

And what do you think it is about the FLS product that sets it apart?

Andrew: There are quite a few contributing factors. What would be the main one?

The main one would be the commitment to the learning in the style in which the work is done. So lots of our simulation products, for example, you know, they look wacky, they look like a mind Minecraft scene. But FLS is utterly realistic. Secondly, it provides work task scenarios and builds the learning curriculum through them that is realistic.

It’s not an artificial scenario to stand here, perform the task, and then suddenly you’re teleported to another task and then teleported to some other task. No. You’ve written a curriculum that flows as you would in the workplace. First, you must learn to operate the controls and then move and then collect the load and then take it somewhere and put it down.

OK, cool. Along the way, you’ve learned about load management, about safe maneuvers in the warehouse and all sorts of things. Breaks those things down very slowly and carefully, but it provides it in a continuous context. That makes sense. And so a new learner, when they start, they’re just doing very small tasks that last a minute or 3 minutes, but suddenly by their fourth task, they find themselves conducting tasks that they would in their job.

And so there’s a natural relationship between the learning they do in the simulator and the output in the real world.

And we double checked it by putting them on a real forklift and make sure the skills have transferred. And they do. It’s just seamless, clever logic. Now, there’s technical reasons as well for what FLS has done that are far superior to competing products.

As far as I can tell. You know, technical things around the way they’ve built their software and encoded and have written the learning curriculum through it. But I’ve tried to speak there to thematic differentiators in my answer.

FLS: Sure. Great. And well, let me put it this way. For the students, is there resistance when they come in and when they’re learning to use the forklift, or are they maybe more into the VR. How do the students respond to it?

Andrew: Yeah, I understand your question. It’s a real mix. You know, the people who would stand back from learning opportunities stand back from this one. Doesn’t matter that it’s VR. There are some that stand back from technology because they’ve got a story in their head that they’re no good with technology.

One of the arts of a teacher or trainer in our case is to understand the student before them, the trainee before them, and work with them to help them participate in the learning process. So that was the first skill we had to learn with the simulators. It was, well…it’s cool to have a simulator. That’s one thing but your trainer needs to still win over the heart and mind of that trainee to have them participate, whether they’re really eager to learn on the simulator or not.

That is the first barrier to cross: the trainee needs to be engaged in the process, and that doesn’t change whether you’re teaching mathematics to some children or, or remedial reading to some 50 year olds who’ve never learned to read. The same challenges are there regardless, I’d say.

And so it sounds like you have one simulator or do you have multiple simulators?

[Andrew indicates the number 5 with his hand]

Five simulators. And do you have a variety? Do you have the stand up or sit down?

Andrew: Both. Yeah.

FLS: So great.

Andrew: Yeah. And then mobile we transport them in a trailer, pulled behind a vehicle. And so we either operate at our training site or we can go to a site anywhere that’s got a floor and a PowerPoint and operate there. It’s great.

FLS: So you’ve already given me so much. Thank you, Andrew. It’s been great. I mean, we’re only 24 minutes in and I feel like we have a pretty clear vision of what you’re doing over there in New Zealand.

Andrew: Well, could I share some of my trainees’ responses when they come out of it?

FLS: Yeah, so that is what I was about to say. Do you have some personal stories? Since we’ve pretty much covered everything I wanted to cover. I’d just like to hear some stories.

Andrew: Cool. So the first thing that the trainees respond to and it’s a delight to watch this man, you’ve got to see this. These folks aren’t used to people giving them things. We’re giving them useful skills for life that means that they can, instead of earning minimum wage, that they’re actually well above that, you know, the ten, 20, 30% over the minimum wage.

Now, instead of scrabbling at one of the thousand applicants for one dodgy job, they’ve got three job offers that they can choose which one they want and the difference that makes and in the way that they walk, the way that they talk by the end of the course is remarkable. It’s, you know, it’s I don’t know if you ever heard of this character called Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.

FLS: Sure. Yeah.

Andrew: This course is Abraham Maslow to a T here. We are looking after their food, shelter and clothing for them. They’re no longer dependent on the state to hand them welfare, but instead they’re earning their own money and they have their own value being returned by employers who are saying, I will pay you more and I will make you job offers that I won’t make to anyone else.

So they walk taller and then they come back to us and they get back in touch and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t tell you, but my kids didn’t used to go to school because I couldn’t afford to put the school uniform on them, or I couldn’t afford to give them lunch to take to school. But now they do.’

Or [they say] ‘I was in emergency housing but now I have my own.’ Or [they say], ‘my husband, well, I just stayed with him because it was the only money I had, but now I don’t stay because he beat me. But now, I left because I got my own money.’ Stuff like that.

FLS: Crazy.

Andrew: Wow. It’s just insane, man. Insane. And you get chatting to them and I ask them, ‘do you remember the course? What stands out for you?’ And what stands out is the people first. And after that, what stands out is the simulator at the heart of it. They talk about how fast it was to learn and how much fun it was to learn and how intense and tough it was to learn it.

Far tougher than the real job that they got, using a forklift. But it taught them way more skills than they need in the job. Because of that, they think they can handle most things at work.

FLS: I’ve done some teaching at high schools in under-resourced neighborhoods around Miami and in Kansas City. And so, I mean, I know what it feels like when you have this kind of success, and students come back and say, ‘you know, you might not have known it, but somehow I know that my life is different’

And that’s why I’m already getting a little emotional hearing this.

It’s a great thing when you…I think there’s this sense of it’s a forklift simulator, that it can feel like maybe it’s just a tool or maybe it’s just, like you said earlier, it can feel a little bit like a game or a toy. But really, in your case, more than anyone else I’ve spoken to, it’s changing lives.

Andrew: Definitely. Yeah. And it’s changing lives in that broad sense. But also in the workplace where, if operators are genuinely more confident, more efficient and more safe, then we have a higher quality workplace that is more calm, it’s more profitable, it’s more successful in every way, also in many ways, not everywhere. And that’s what employers are starting to see is this ownership on the ground is changing the culture of their operations.

And that’s the potential they ultimately want.

FLS: Yeah.

Andrew: It’s not that they want less damage, actually. That’s a metric. That’s just a KPI for how good an employer are we, how successful a business are we that we had less incidents last month or less lost, lost time injuries or whatever it might be that the board has? I’m looking at what they really want is to be a higher quality organization that is more successful on the market.

And this is a driver.

FLS: Yeah, well, it sounds like you’re doing some great stuff over there in New Zealand. I wouldn’t mind coming to visit you actually and see what’s happening.

Andrew: We’ve got a spare room. Come on down.


FLS: But I’m not going to take up any more of your time. I know it’s Friday afternoon for you, so I’m going to let you go. It’s been really great talking to you. Super, super interesting. And good luck to you and your project.

Andrew: Thank you very much. Great talking to you.