Bob Martin: This is Bob Martin with Imagine America Radio. We’re talking to Jerome Grant, chief executive officer at Universal Technical Institute.
Jerome, help us a little bit to understand. Since you’re the chief executive officer of UTI, how are you navigating through this whole COVID pandemic situation, both with regard to physical facilities and students and faculty members?
Jerome Grant: Absolutely. Well, as always, our focus is on our students, our faculty members, their well-being, their safety, and continuing to offer them safe, quality education to support their career goals. Now, before the pandemic hit, our education was solely delivered face-to-face, hands-on on our campuses.
But in mid-March, we transitioned about 50% of our curriculum online. About 50% of our curriculum happens in a classroom with an instructor either demonstrating or talking about some skills that are necessary. And about 50% of our curriculum happens in the lab, hands-on, with engines, electronics—all the things that you would expect in a transportation technician job. So we redesigned our courses to take the whole classroom experience online. It also required us to give our students a higher level of support, and our team did that just tirelessly. This was really compassionate work in the middle of a crisis, and I’m proud of each and every one of them.
So above all, as we move forward, we continue to be focused on the students. And now that our campuses are open, for CDC-compliant lab work, we’re continuing the online curriculum, which is about 50% of our curriculum, while we bring the students into the lab to complete their hands-on lab work and move forward.
Lee Doubleday: Okay. Now, tell me this. So, it sounds like you’re saying that you moved 50% of the coursework online due to COVID. When do you plan to return to normal?
Jerome: I actually think we’re in the new normal. I think that there aren’t many people out there that believe that this pandemic has altered the way we interact with people on a daily basis. And therefore, there may be a day down the line where we return to completely face-to-face instruction. But what we found is that we can be just as effective, reach students wherever they are online for that 50% of the time, and bring them in the labs to complete everything they always have in a hands-on way. And so that’s why I think what we say at UTI is we’re really in the new normal, and we’re moving forward. Since we’ve opened again in May, June, and July, we’ve actually graduated over 1,300 new techs out into the industry, getting great jobs in transportation and collision, CNC, welding, etc.
Lee: Fantastic. Now, you mentioned that this is the new normal. How do you think that will impact education in general?
Jerome: I think we’re seeing this across the education spectrum. My 8-year-old daughter is in the next room in a virtual third-grade classroom right now and will likely stay that way for the rest of the year. The outcomes that the teachers producing out of them are actually quite remarkable. And I think that as we move to distance learning and virtual learning, we’re finding the new ways to interact with students in ways where we can really help them progress. Now, you can’t get away from the fact that if you want to be an auto mechanic or a diesel mechanic or a welder or CNC machinist for motorcycle or marine, you’re going to have to do the hands-on work it takes to prove the proficiencies and to practice your skills. But I think in this blended-learning model, what we found is an optimal way for students to begin to bring in the concepts, to see the demonstrations, interact with each other, and interact with faculty members, and then get into the labs and get their hands dirty as they’re working.
Lee: Yeah really, I do have to commend you. I know that, you know, Universal Technical Institute trains and teaches their students with a hands-on learning environment. But at the same time, COVID-19—and I hear this from other schools that we’re talking to—has really sort of changed the way that I think students are even approaching education. I mean, look, it’s 2020. Everything is sort of done—at least partially done—online. And so I really commend you for what you guys have done and what you’ve been able to do, and especially in such a short amount of time.
So what changes since COVID-19 have you made in regards to your teaching methods? I know you said 50% is online, so it sounds like you’ve sort of gone to a hybrid format with theory online and hands-on lab in person with smaller groups. How does that work?
Jerome: Yeah. That’s exactly true. So our online portion of the course is taught much in the same way it’s taught in a classroom. There’s video-based instruction. There is discussion sections. There’s virtual forums, office hours. There’s time for students to ask questions as they move through the part of the curriculum that was in the classroom. And then our labs are operating just as they were before—with a really important distinction, which is our class densities. Initially, during the crisis, the CDC set out guidelines that they said they didn’t want to see more than ten people in one room at a time. Well, those guidelines have evolved over time to talk more about social distancing, the wearing of masks and gloves, the sanitization of the space, keeping students away from each other.
And so what we’ve done is we reorganized our campuses in a way where our students are six feet apart. They’re always wearing masks. They enter and exit through designated doors that are closest to their labs. They come in, they do their lab work, and then they exit. All of our student services are still operating virtually. So you can do financial aid. You can do career counseling. You can do changing of your schedule and all the rest of that virtually with our team. But we’ve got about 15 kids in each lab, all spaced apart six feet. And it is a smaller size than we had before. But with half of our curriculum being online, it gave us the opportunity to spread out our lab environments into some unused classrooms and spaces that typically were used for other parts of our curriculum. And it’s operating actually quite well right now.
Lee: Very cool. I like what you said about the online education aspect of it; kind of gives you more flexibility on when you can hold in-person labs. I think that’s really interesting.
So, tell me another thing: what have you done to keep the students engaged?
Jerome: Well, we have a number of things. We have also built out online events and forums, whereby we can bring students together online as part of, say, a car show or we can bring content to them from NASCAR. You may have seen at one of the recent NASCAR races that the Penske team honored all of our graduates on their number two car by listing the name of the—listing the names of every one of our graduates. It was a great honor. And it’s the kind of thing that keeps the students engaged and knows that they’re part of something that’s special.
Bob: You’re listening to Imagine America Radio and our guest today is Mr. Jerome Grant, chief executive officer at Universal Technical Institute. Jerome, if you don’t mind, why don’t you talk—let’s talk a little bit about the other elephant in the room that, despite all that’s gone on, there still is a portion of the student population that have difficulty either because they’re not proficient in it or they don’t have it, getting access to computers. So how are you able to—how is UTI planning to try to accommodate those particular individuals?
Jerome: That’s actually a great, great point. So there’s really two things you’re asking about there. One, access to the technology necessary to be able to participate in the digital education, and then also people whose proclivity may or may not be for digital education.
First, on the access side, we’ve been very close with our 11,000 students in communication. And one of the things we found out early during the crisis, and began to act on, is the fact that about 26% of our students either had no technology to be able to engage online—or just handheld technology, smartphones, etc. We didn’t believe that a smartphone was the experience we were going for in terms of our online curriculum. The ability to work in forums and chats and get multiple people together on the screen to be able to have discussions.
Hence, through the timely and generous help of the Department of Education and the Higher Education Relief Fund, we were able to provide computers for all of our students. What I mean by that is every student who starts gets a computer that is set up and ready with their learning materials on it, as well as access to the online courses. We also distributed to the students that were already in the online curriculum to make sure that we had a similar user experience through the process. And so, I think it was exactly what those funds were meant for in the first place, was to be able to do tangible things that directly support the students and keep them moving forward in successful educational experiences.
The second question you asked was a question around students’ proclivity for online learning. And what we’re finding is, yes, there are some students that have shied away from digital learning. They’d rather be in a classroom with an instructor, and this type of learning is not something that’s natural to them. So what we’ve done for them is we’ve moved a lot more to virtual experiences where we have multiple students—say, like in a Zoom class and things along those lines, so they can ask questions of each other. I think the other thing that has actually broken down the barrier of that since we reopened our campuses in May is that they are in the labs with 14 other students doing their labs. And although they’re six feet apart, socially distanced, with masks on, there’s a sense of community that’s building around there that then they can bring back into the digital experience as they move forward.
Bob: This next question is probably more in the weeds. This is Bob Martin with Imagine America Radio. We’re talking to Jerome Grant, the chief executive officer of Universal Technical Institute. As I was saying, this is probably more in the weeds, but you talked about this virtual learning and all the courses. What software are using to manage these virtual classes? Are you using something like Canvas? This is more in the weeds, so I’m sorry.
Jerome: Yeah, that’s quite all right. So initially when the pandemic hit, again, our curriculum was completely hands-on. And so moving nearly 50% of nearly 200 courses online within 10 days was a monumental task of nearly 600 instructors around the country to move that forward. Initially, we moved into Google Classroom. Why? Because it had the lowest barrier to entry to get content into it. It has good communication tools, easy access, and Google is relatively ubiquitous across the country. Now, in general, we’re a Blackboard school. We have been a Blackboard school for some time. So we will be transitioning all of that online material to Blackboard over the fall, and we expect that transition to take place no later than November. And then rolling forward, we’ll be able to integrate the on-ground Blackboard materials with the online Blackboard materials hooking into our student information system and making things just a little less manual, if you will.
Lee: Hey, Jerome, this is Lee. A quick question for you. This is not part of the script, but did I hear you say that at one of the latest NASCAR races, that Penske had actually honored some of your students on their car?
Jerome: Absolutely. The number two car—the entire top of the car, we can—most of our reps’ backgrounds are this car right now. What they did is they—during the NASCAR race there were a couple of shout-outs to UTI. We run NASCAR Tech out at Mooresville, North Carolina, and a significant portion of the NASCAR crew teams are our graduates. Our CNC machining in Mooresville is a partnership we have with Roush Yates, which makes most of the engines for NASCAR. So it was really a great honor to have our graduates named on the number 2 car, and I can send you a picture of that if you’d like as well.
Lee: Yeah, I definitely would like to get a picture of that. I think that’s really neat and very cool that Penske had done that and then you guys obviously have a really great relationship with them. I think that’s fantastic.
Jerome: Well, we do. And Roger Penske’s been on our board for some 20 years. He actually just retired from the board and one of his colleagues, George Brochick, who’s head of strategy and development for Penske, joined the board as Roger stepped off. We’ve been a strong partner with the Penske car dealerships around the country, their trucking companies, their NASCAR and race teams. And they hire some six- to eight hundred of our graduates a year across their footprint. It’s a great relationship.
Lee: Wow. Yeah. That is cool because they’re obviously getting the education that they need in order to enter that career field at your school, and then they just simply go in and say, “I’m working for Penske,” so it’s a win-win really. Very cool.
Jerome: I think that one of the main value propositions at UTI is its employer and OEM relationships. Why a student would want to come to UTI is because at many of our campuses, on top of core ASE certification, we have these MSAT programs—which you got to think of them as basically graduate school, 8 to 10 weeks. Focus in an area like being a Porsche technician or a BMW technician or a Peterbilt technician or Harley-Davidson or Mercury Marine. And those relationships across our campus are what people look at us and say, “Yeah. I could get a certification, but then I also can get advanced training that would lead me to a higher-paying job in an area that I’m really, really interested in.”
Bob: This is Bob Martin again. I would really be hesitant—I shouldn’t be hesitant to say—just how much we’ve enjoyed our partnership with the Imagine America Foundation with the Universal Technical Institute. I have to be real candid with you and say, you were one of the original cornerstone organizations that we went to back in 1999. So I personally have had a chance to visit literally every one of your campuses. I will tell you, that NASCAR campus is very, very impressive. All your campuses are impressive, but if you really want to get into the NASCAR moving and grooving and what the opportunities are, you really need to go down and see that campus. But, Lee, I’m sorry, I interrupted.
Lee: We’re talking to Jerome Grant, chief executive officer at Universal Technical Institute. Tell me something: How are you handling the hands-on lab portion of your training? Are your labs open at all of your locations now?
Jerome: Yes, they are. Actually, all 12 locations’ labs are open. We’re delivering the hands-on instruction in a CDC-compliant manner, and what that means is that all of our learning aids are at least six feet apart. So you could picture a lab that has 15 engines in the lab, all six feet apart. Our students are wearing masks and gloves. Our instructors are wearing masks and gloves. They go through their lab experience. After the lab experience, the students exit through the door they came in, go right out of the building, and on with the rest of their day. Our labs are completely sanitized in between each section so that the next section of students that may come in the afternoon or in the evening are working on sanitized properties. And it’s actually operating quite well.
Lee: Great. Now, another question about the online learning bit: Do you see online learning being used more in the future of automotive programs?
Jerome: Absolutely. At least, I hope they are. And we will be. I think it actually offers something that a strictly hands-on lockstep curriculum doesn’t, which is flexibility. Right now, in this environment—with 30 to 40 million unemployed Americans, with double the unemployment rate—being that 18- to 24-year-old, they’re really thinking about the jobs that they have right now. They don’t want to lose them. So when we’re talking to students and they’re thinking about, “Can I come to school, where I’m going to have a career?” one of the most immediate priorities they have is—listen, I’ve got a job and I don’t want to lose it. Well, because most of our campuses offer labs in morning sessions, afternoon sessions, and even evening sessions, we can offer the students even more flexibility with 50% of the curriculum online by saying, “Listen. You can do the online portion asynchronously whenever you want. There are synchronous experiences that you can join that we have scheduled throughout the week, but you can do the online course portion asynchronously and then fit a lab schedule into your schedule that allows you to keep working.” This wasn’t something we could accomplish with a full hands-on curriculum. You were either an all-morning student, an all-afternoon student, or an all-evening student. And you were in our building twice the amount of time. So I actually think we’re gonna be able to reach out to students who previously could not make the time commitment to UTI by offering them this blended curriculum.
Lee: Yeah. I’m sure it’s something that your students really appreciate, especially what you had said about the flexibility part of it. Now let me ask you this. Have you seen any students shy away from having to take the courses online? And how do you provide students with confidence in their ability to be successful online?
Jerome: Well, the lion’s share of the students have moved in directly and have really embraced the online environment and the way in which we’re teaching. I think part of it is that they don’t know what they’re in for until they’re in it and they’re working through it. And so the overwhelming majority have embraced it and are continuing to move forward. But yes, people learn in different ways. And there are some students who struggle with the online elements of the course. And that’s why, since March, when we pivoted online, we’d added a significant amount of human experience where—as I’ve said, we’ve got Zoom forums, office hours, discussion sections, virtual events that we put in front of the students to bring them more contact—to give them more of that human interaction experience. I will tell you, I mean, the pandemic has changed the way people look at digital engagement because, for a number of months where we were all sitting in our homes, digital engagement was all we had. And so the barriers have been breaking down as students move forward. And I think, as we learn more techniques for engaging students, we’re seeing that the number of students that just shy away from anything digital as really, really minimal.
Bob: Jerome, this is Bob Martin again with Imagine America Radio. One of the real strengths historically for Universal Technical Institute have always been the instructors because, as you said I believe earlier, most of them came through as students, came aboard as instructors. They might do other things within your company. What’s been, in all of this change since March—because it’s only been six months or so—what’s been the reaction of your instructors to embracing this change, this technology in this new paradigm?
Jerome: That’s a really great question. First of all, our instructors stepped up in March and were real heroes. As I said, we’ve got about 600 instructors around the footprint. And we engaged almost every one of them to help us develop the online content. And you’re absolutely right. You’ve got master technicians who’ve been out in the industry for decades who have transitioned in to be able to teach our students what they know. And they’re teaching methodologies, for all of these years, that’s been hands on, face to face, and in the labs. And so it was a significant transition for them. We’re proud of what they’ve done. They pivoted very, very quickly, and they’ve become incredibly digitally savvy as they have moved through this journey with us. And, so, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of them didn’t reach out to me, and said, “Wow, this is so different. I don’t know if I can do it.” But we gave them a lot of support from our education group. We gave them a lot of digital support through some of our partners that we’ve used as we’ve moved forward, and we think they’ve come through. And they’re now starting to say things like, “Hey, let me rerecord that session because now that it’s digital, I can bring these interactive elements into it. And this stuff will continue to evolve and get better as we go forward.” So, again, I couldn’t be prouder of faculty and staff of the way that they rose to the occasion and are really supporting our students in this new way.
Bob: Well, you touched upon it. Let me just continue this question, which is, what are some of the other ways that Universal Technical Institute is supporting students, particularly in this new COVID environment? I think you touched upon it earlier, with regard to partnerships and a lot of opportunities for employment and training. But I want to give you a chance to restate that if you would.
Jerome: Yeah. Sure. So it is a challenging environment. Many of the students that are coming to us right now are students that may have lost a job in another area of the economy and are looking for something that’s durable and something that they can move forward with, like the transportation industry. And so we work very hard when students engage with us as enrolled students to see if we can’t get them jobs in industry while they’re moving through our curriculum. And as I said before, there are still a lot of jobs out there in the transportation industry. And so we take it very seriously that when students engage with us, our employment specialists can get them up and running in part-time jobs or full-time jobs in industry while they’re going to school with us. We have this early employment program, where we brought in a number of our major employers that have sort of set up ways in which they can employ students from the moment they start at UTI and, then, when they graduate, they can move on to their professional careers at UTI as well. And so one way we’re supporting our students is helping them get jobs right away. Another way we’re supporting our students is through the distribution of the laptops and the technology that we brought to make sure that they all have a consistent high-level experience in the digital forum. I think in the last way we’re supporting our students is by really upping the level of help we’ve got through our counselors and our guidance as we move through the curriculum.
Bob: I just want to commend you for the leadership you’ve taken in taking that organization and moving it through what was a absolutely historic set of challenges, both for students, faculty members, and the people like yourself that have to navigate and lead these things. My compliments to you.
So what I’m leaving today’s conversation with, is if you have a passion for a meaningful career in the skills trade—and, specifically, in the rapidly growing and evolving transportation industry—you need to seriously look at Universal Technical Institute. And to do that, we would urge any and all of our listeners to go to uti.edu, and it will give you a complete list of all 12 campuses. It will give you an opportunity to look at the programs and make the connection into admissions people or financial aid people if you’ve got questions.
Jerome: We’ve also taken our admissions process to a virtual experience. And so students that are interested in coming to UTI can go to uti.edu. They can take a virtual tour of every single one of our campuses. They can watch videos that tell you exactly what we’re doing in terms of CDC compliance. And then also, we’re not allowing people to tour our campuses while students are in the building Monday through Friday, but we are holding socially distanced live touring events on the weekend.
Bob: It’s really been our pleasure to have today’s guest of this episode of Imagine America Radio, Mr. Jerome Grant, chief executive officer of Universal Technical Institute. We really want to thank Jerome for sharing his time and considerable expertise with our audience today.
On behalf of my cohost, Lee Doubleday, I wish you all a very safe and prosperous day. Goodbye.