The SMRP Annual Conference begins next Monday, and will be presented virtually this year. SMRP Executive Director Erin Erickson took some time this week to talk with Plant Services Editor in Chief Thomas Wilk about what's in store for attendees at this year's event, as well as the activities and events that SMRP has planned for 2021. Register for the 2020 Annual Conference at: https://smrp2020.pathable.co
PS: The COVID pandemic has changed a lot of people's plans. Could you talk about some of the decisions that SMRP made this year regarding both the annual conference and the symposia?
EE: Definitely, it's been a challenging year. And as far as those two events are concerned, one of the exercises that I went through with the board is a lot of contingency planning with the annual budget. I've probably been working on that since early 2020, and one of the biggest decisions that had to be made first thing in this fiscal year is whether or not we held the conference in person.
There were a number of challenges with doing that, even though certain businesses were opening back up, as of a few months ago. We also ran into capacity restrictions and other logistics challenges that we would face on-site at the convention center in Columbus. So, that and the safety of our members were the biggest decision factors behind going virtual. The board did approve the decision to go virtual, and we went ahead and contracted with Pathable, which honestly looks like a really great virtual conferencing site. I'm excited to try this out this year.
As far as the symposia are concerned, we did postpone the June 2020 Denver event, but we have rebooked it. We’ll see how things look next year, and continue to make decisions on that, but for right now, it is set for the first week in June 2021 in Denver at the same venue.
As far as the international events are concerned, this one was pretty challenging for us this year. You know, we had our first Middle Eastern event in February, and I think we only ended up with about 65 attendees. But that was right around the time that COVID-19 started hitting Asia, and I'm sure that that played into why we may not have had the best attendance there. So, we did decide this year to go ahead and pause certainly the in-person event, as well as trying a virtual event there.
What we did do is decide to hold the Latin American symposium for the second year virtually, because we have a new affiliate launched in that region, and we were about a week out from holding that event when COVID-19 shut down the world. We figured it was best to make sure that we had that budgeted, so that we can get those numbers, you know, that additional value that they were seeking earlier this year.
PS: Now that the annual event is online, how is it going to be structured? Will it be like the regular one, or the same kind of workshops and sessions?
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EE: We did restructure it a little bit. We are planning to open Monday, October 19 with six half-day workshops, and people have the opportunity to pay in addition for those if there's a topic that they want to participate in.
And then, October 20 and 21, we will hold the regular conference that people are used to with the track sessions. We'll open it up with some opening remarks and welcome, and then cover a few logistics for the first 15 or 20 minutes. Then, attendees have the option to go into their track sessions throughout the afternoon, and we are going to do a virtual happy hour at the end of the day, which will give attendees the chance to visit the virtual exhibit hall at that time, as well as throughout the event. So, there are a lot of similarities.
People will start the second day with tracks, and we will wrap it up with a closing panel. Unfortunately we’ve had to reduce the number of tracks in the virtual model, but we are offering 24 total this year, which means we've got six tracks with three sessions going on at any given time.
I think the best part is that if attendees aren’t able to attend one of the sessions, they'll have access to the recordings for all of the sessions for up to a year after the live event concludes. So, potentially, attendees could sit in on every session if they want to access recordings later, which is much different than making hard choices on which track to attend at the live event. It's also close to 70% off what normal conference price would be. You can get about 40% of your recertification hours from the comfort of your home or office.
Also, what this has done is offer us an opportunity to start thinking a little bit differently going forward about some of the value we can offer to members who can't always come to the in-person conference. So, maybe we start considering doing a virtual event every year for that audience.
PS: Has the current situation influenced SMRP’s plans to certification exams online? Has it accelerated them?
EE: Around March, computer-based testing facilities had to shut down, so there were about four months where people could not take the exam unless they went through a volunteer proctor, and most proctors weren't traveling at that point. The computer-based test facilities are back open now, and we are starting to see more people return to take exams.
What COVID-19 has done for us is make us pursue an online proctoring format much sooner than we probably would have anticipated. We have completed an application to do that, and currently we're working with our ANSI assessor to ensure that the online format is secure. We hope to have online certification options launched and available to exam candidates as early as January. What this that means is that people would be able to take the exam from their home, and be proctored by someone through the OnVUE system, which is who we're contracted to do this through. The proctor would have to be able to view them through the webcam for the duration of the exam. And then I know we're working on scheduling some breaks and how that works, which has also prolonged this process in addition to having to get it ANSI approved.
We hope to launch this option in early 2021 as a new option for people who want to sit for the exam and don't feel comfortable going to computer-based testing facilities. I hope that it's a little bit easier for people who may not want to go through the steps to sign up for a computer-based testing facility, and actually go into a remote location. This might make them a little more comfortable sitting for the exam being able to do it from their own living room if they wanted, so we're excited for it. It should be a positive change.
We're also pursuing practice exam questions being available for purchase. Right now, we've got 20 questions in our exam handbook for people who are prepping to sit for the exam. Over the years, member survey data has reflected that people want more exam prep opportunities. So, we are hoping to have about 110 questions downloadable for people next year, so they can actually walk through the exam with tough questions that aren't actually going to be on the exam, to get that experience before they actually sit for it. We're pretty excited about that. I would expect that would roll out closer to summer of next year. But that's in the works.
Another item is training. We've had ongoing member demand every year for more education and training around CMRP exam prep. We have 30 subject matter experts working right now to develop curriculum for each of the five pillars of the Body of Knowledge, and we hope by next summer to roll out a virtual training online where people could actually register for one pillar or all five, and over the course of two months, be able to receive a certificate of completion for each. The idea would be to have learning assessment questions available at the end, and they would have to pass to move on to the next level.
PS: What are some other initiatives that SMRP has planned for 2021 and beyond?
EE: One of the things that members told us they wanted via our annual member survey was for us to expand the SMRP library resources, and offer more online education. So, one of the more immediate things that we're going to be doing is that we're going to launch an expanded version of the existing Body of Knowledge for the CMRP exam. And I know that's scheduled to launch at some point right after conference, and that will be paired with a webinar series that Tom Moriarty is going to present for us over the course of the next few months. So, those are already scheduled, but we've really expanded it from about a 25-page outline of the pillars to about 150-page deep dive of what you really need to know under each. And that's essentially what the training would be modeled after. A lot of work has gone into that. We appreciate all the volunteers who've worked on the M&RK Committee to do that in the last year.
We also have shifted the M&RK Committee to focus on the CMRT Body of Knowledge. We don't have a body of knowledge for the CMRT right now, so we've had an advisory council who have developed a blueprint for the exam that's been approved by SMRPCO, and now what they'll do is build that out, so we'll have a framework for people to study. Longer term plan, of course, would be that we would offer CMRT training, but we want to make sure that we get the body of knowledge developed first.
The second major thing that members have wanted us to focus on is workforce development and attracting young professionals to the profession. So, one thing that we plan to expand on is our work with state CTEs. We have put out a letter to all of the state CTEs to talk about how SMRP can promote the Perkins grants at the state level, and we're slowly getting feedback from them. I think we've had about 10 responses. The idea would be to set up calls with them to learn a little bit more about how to do it within those states. We also hope to hold a state fly-in, but whether that's in-person or virtual is yet to be determined.
The biggest thing would be that we want to get started with developing a pipeline of tech schools and community colleges. We intend to start small and identify through our chapters and our existing corporate members that are already partnering with schools in their communities to figure out maybe one to three target areas, whether that's a state or specific cities, and start building a pipeline through some of our volunteers in the chapters, so that we can work with them.
I think, long term, we would want to do this, so that ultimately the school partners with SMRP, and we have more internship and apprenticeship job postings on our website, to give value back to those students. There's a workforce development working group that our government relations team oversees that is starting to talk more about this. This is probably one of our bigger priorities for the next year, so, I'm excited to see what they come up with.
The final item that members really want to see, based on member survey feedback, is just more networking and in-person events, which is obviously very challenging right now. But one of the things that we want to do is do more online. This plays into our upcoming Body of Knowledge Webinar Series. We're also looking at plans to roll out the Best Practices Workshop, which we've often presented at different events, online a few times a year. That's one of our initiatives after the conference ends. Then we will be holding the virtual Latin American symposium. We're excited to try that virtually and engage that group. The date hasn't been determined yet, but it will be April 2021 sometime. So, there will be a lot going on to keep people engaged during a time where we can't actually be together.