When it comes to training, there is no timeline

It's never too soon and never too late to start training for cabling-infrastructure installation. Is there anyone in the telecommunications arena who is not prepared to increase his investments and stay ahead of the competition by hiring qualified designers and installers of cabling infrastructures? Many manufacturers, installation companies, distributors, and system designers are realizing the benefits of hiring educated and certified cable networking installers.

Much of the current skilled telecommunications workforce is comprised of people with years (and sometimes just months) of practical on-the-job training (OJT) experience. The "major league" of professionals is already spreading too thin to fulfill the ever-increasing requirements associated with "smart-wired buildings" and the major role of optical fiber in both commercial and residential applications. Accordingly, the supply for skilled labor will come from the "farm league" of high school graduates, college students, or anyone who is searching for a more exciting vocation.

For this reason, the value of proper education with certification becomes even more significant. The cabling industry has evolved into a respected and admired profession since the mid-1980s. Technicians can no longer be just telephone line "cable pullers." An organization's high-speed network is too dependent on the integrity of the building's cabling infrastructure. Entry-level and senior technicians, project managers, operations managers, estimators, and upper management need to be versed in structured multimedia cabling systems, precise installation practices, testing and troubleshooting, standards and codes, safety, and professionalism. Not even today's information-technology and management-information-systems professionals can be expected to keep up with changing cabling standards on their own.

Look at some of the major trends in telecommunications that will change the course of the premises markets:

* According to Frost & Sullivan (Mountain View, CA) , unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cable as a percentage of revenue for premises-wiring transmission media is predicted to go from today's peak of 64% to 55% in 2002. Fiber-optic transmission, on the other hand, will grow from today's 25% to 35% in the same time frame. The two media are anticipated to have equal shares by 2005.

* ElectroniCast (San Mateo, CA) reports that the fiber-optic local-area-network (LAN)/ premises market will go from $646 million in 1997 to $1.4 billion in 2002, a 222% increase, then leapfrog to $3.5 billion in 2007 (an additional 244% increase).

* The bandwidths associated with Internet and intranet video, wide-area-network ultra-high-speed voice, 1.2-Gbit/sec and higher LAN data, videoconferencing, and subscriber high-definition television with video-on-demand are all migrating toward fiber. Fiber-optic applications have rapidly been implemented from the interbuilding cabling to intrabuilding cabling for both the backbone and to the workstation.

* In the copper world, there are constantly changing standards for horizontal cabling from the early days of Category 3. Now, existing Category 5/Class D installations must be certified and documented to support 1000Base-T with the proposed TIA/EIA PN-4292 (TSB-95) standard update for Enhanced Category 5 channel parameters. And then there's the issue of how to compare the cost-effectiveness per port of fiber versus proposed Category 6/Class E and Category 7/Class F developments, given the development of vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser technologies.

Is your company prepared to keep up with these trends? The good news is that industry-recognized cable-installation certification programs are available. For example, BICSI is a nonprofit professional association whose programs and interests cover the design and installation of voice, data, and video cabling systems. The BICSI Cabling Installation Registration Program offers 40-hour courses designed to provide candidates with a three-tier, five-year-plus career path for the apprentice level (0- to 2-year OJT experience), installer level (2- to 5-year OJT), and technician level (more than 5-year OJT). The program provides employers, or anyone who wants to find qualified installers, with a credible benchmark. It also ensures consistent quality installations via the knowledge of the latest in technologies, standards, and codes.

The next step in this career path is to become a BICSI registered communications distribution designer (RCDD). The RCDD designation is the status of excellence in the telecommunications field. It is analogous to the professional engineer (PE) or certified public accountant (CPA) designations, but without college degree requirements.

There are many BICSI-licensed training centers worldwide, each conforming to strict BICSI guidelines. The goal is to promote the hands-on training necessary for job-ready skills. The electrical unions also have cable certification programs, including BICSI, but some may take three to four years to complete. In all cases, make sure the training organization is licensed or the staff is qualified to provide industry-recognized certification.

The appeal of official BICSI-sanctioned cable certification received the attention of educators like Richard Tsina and Joan Shao, chairman and director of telecommunications engineering, respectively, at the University of Berkeley Extension, and Tim Johnson, assistant dean for the University of California Santa Cruz Extension. Each observed a successful course I taught for five years, entitled "Network Premises Wiring Theory and Practice." They also recognized the importance of conducting classes at a BICSI-licensed facility. Correspondingly, both university extensions elected to incorporate the BICSI installers program into their respective networking and telecommunications course curricula for continuing college units.

Some success stories are appropriate to mention. A former student and senior computer technician at Hartnell College in Salinas, CA, was able to convince his supervisors to incorporate a complete fiber-optic cable infrastructure for the entire campus. In less than a year, this remote agricultural college has become an elite school with every student having access to a computer for study. Another graduate, Matt Buchanan of Napa, CA, went from being a forklift driver working nights at a winery to tripling his salary as a skilled technician for one of the area's largest telecommunications installers.

Through all these trends and examples, the message remains constant and clear: Whether you're a manufacturer, installation company, distributor, system installer, or student of emerging telecommunications products or systems, the only way to stay ahead of competition is investing in proper training. And whether training is given or taken, it is an advantage to both sides-employers and employees-to heighten the understanding of the standards and practices of this growing marketplace. Most important, there is no timeline on training, because it is an ongoing process. As long as there are new developments and standards, there will always be a need for new training and re-certification. Training with certification is the vital mainstay in our industry.

D.A. "Bo" Conrad is vice president of sales and marketing for CrossBow Communications, a BICSI-licensed training facility in Fremont, CA.

More in Optical Tech