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Installation – Striking a Balance

There are many factors to consider when developing a corporate training strategy for installers and other employees within a company. Balancing employee and corporate needs, and weighing the value of current versus older training methods, are essential parts of this process.


December 1, 2000  


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“This is how we train all of our employees and we have found it to be successful.”

We have all heard this line of argument at some point, and if you have changed careers a few times, you know that this discussion is not unique to any one industry.

If a corporate policy has been perceived as successful in the past, there will be very little interest in changing it in the future. After all, the main purpose of any company is to maximize profits, and changing business practices can be risky. Consequently, we often learn about our jobs — and how to do them — in the very same ways our predecessors did.

Yet, while corporate ideas on training may not have altered much over the years, the cabling industry has certainly changed. Ethernet cable systems today consist of twisted pair cable and optical fiber instead of thick and thin coax. Category 3 UTP was replaced by Category 4 as our preferred media, and that was quickly replaced by Category 5. Today we use Enhanced Category 5, but Category 6 and 7 UTP may soon replace it as the cable of choice.

And what about fiber? In the past, if we installed optical fiber to the work area, it had to be 62.5 micron, but TIA/EIA standards also now provide us with the option of installing 50-micron multi-mode. In the near future, we could be installing single-mode to everyone’s desk. Our connectors and installation procedures have also improved in order to more efficiently use space and provide the bandwidth that each new generation of cable has provided.

These steps in cable systems evolution have all occurred within the last decade, and the pace of change is quickening further. Would it not be wise to consider changing our training methods as well?

Every person who joins a corporation will have a different learning style and a different set of experiences to build upon. A training program that worked for one individual can not be counted upon to efficiently deliver the same information to everybody. We must learn to balance an individual’s current skills with the available training and the skills that are needed for that person to adequately perform a particular job.

MAKING A CASE FOR TRAINING

Just for one moment, let’s not just assume that training is necessary — let’s back this up by considering three main factors. First, the structured cabling industry has a unique vocabulary and a unique set of skills associated with it. As technology changes, we must update our knowledge and our skills through training.

Second, during the past two years we have had several updates to the TIA/EIA standards that are the foundation of our industry. In the near future, we will have many more updates to these standards. There are many courses available that will ensure our installations are standards-compliant. Third, a properly trained individual is less likely to make mistakes and will require less time to complete tasks. As a result, the company will benefit from an increase in productivity and a decrease in scrap rates.

In order to determine the types of training required, you must begin by identifying all of the job functions within your company. These could include administrative tasks such as answering the telephone, helping to prepare proposals, paying and collecting outstanding invoices. Most companies will have a marketing or sales group, and there will be managers responsible for both the administrative and sales functions. Project managers will work with systems design engineers and installation personnel. Systems design specialists will need a thorough understanding of the current revisions of TIA/EIA standards and knowledge of local building and electrical codes. Somebody will have to be able to read blueprints and perform site surveys so that proposals adequately deal with the needs of customers.

You will also need to examine the different tasks that must be completed by your installation crews. Working with coaxial cable is remarkably different from installing optical fiber, while UTP and STP also present a unique set of challenges. But, within each media type, you must be able to progress from one function to another as a company in order to finish a project. Your staff will move from cable pulling to terminations to testing and, if necessary, troubleshooting and restoration in order to complete an installation.

In large companies, different individuals (or a group of individuals) may fulfil the job functions that you identify. In small companies, specialization is a luxury and employees will tend to carry out more than one job. Yet in both scenarios, someone will be responsible for all of these tasks.

Your next step will be to develop individual learning profiles for employees, in order to provide them with the training they require. This will involve describing skills and areas of expertise that need further development, and may also involve the identification of the level of skill that each individual will need for a particular role within the company. For example, supervisors will require greater expertise than those in entry-level positions, and their learning profiles should reflect this.

Annual performance reviews, during which skills and performance are evaluated, are excellent times to develop learning profiles. These reviews also provide your employees with a forum in which they can discuss their plans for the future. If you know what people want to accomplish, their education can address any roadblocks they are likely to encounter.

GETTING EDUCATED

The next step involves deciding where to go to get the training everyone needs. There are many sources for training. In the structured cabling industry, many consider BICSI to be the definitive authority. The association offers a wide range of courses dealing with design and installation, inside and outside cable systems, and all types of media. Unfortunately, these courses are not regularly offered in Canada, and travelling to the United States for training can be expensive. The good news is that BICSI has begun to develop training modules that can be completed over the Internet.

Another alternative is to seek out a local association, such as the IBEW, that may have training available to members at reasonable prices, or look to commercial training firms that offer a variety of courses across North America.

There are also two other good sources of external training — public institutions and manufacturers. There are many institutions across the country, including colleges and technical institutes, that offer structured cabling and fiber optic installation courses. These courses will vary in length, specialization and tuition, and usually offer flexible course times. Furthermore, if your company has unique training requirements, these institutions can often customize courses to meet the needs of corporate clients.

Another good source of information for many companies is manufacturer training. Most manufacturers in the cabling industry have their own training programs. These courses are often required as a part of the certification and warranty program offered by the manufacturers. The courses are generally available to anyone who is interested, and the quality of this kind of training has improved significantly in recent years. While each manufacturer will focus on its own product offering during practical exercises, the standards-related portion of these courses are usually well done, and you can balance your education by completing training from several manufacturers.

Finally, you will also want to consider in-house training and mentoring. In-house training can include many different strategies. For instance, you could work with industry leaders and manufacturers to develop a series of lunch-and-learn or after-hours sessions. During these sessions, a guest speaker can deliver information on new products or offer refresher courses on existing technology. Another alternative for larger companies is to develop internal training tools. These might include self-paced modules, assigned reading, or the use of on-line training. Mentoring can also be used to provide valuable in
formation to employees, by teaming beginners up with individuals who have more experience.

A COURSE OF ACTION

To select an appropriate program for each individual, you will need to ask two questions: What does this person need to know to do the job? And what does this person need to be able to accomplish the job? You will then need to examine an outline for any course or program you are considering. It should include a detailed list of the topics to be discussed and a description of any available labs or exercises. This information can then be compared to an individual learning profile in order to find a good training match.

Yet, before you commit yourself to a course of action, there are some other points to consider. For example, you could research the qualifications and experience of the instructors for the course, and the quality of the facilities in which the training is to take place. Does the institution have the necessary equipment to provide each student in the course with an adequate amount of practice? Does that equipment represent the current state-of-the-practice in the industry?

You may also want to ask about placement records for past graduates of the course or program. This will apply more to programs composed of many courses, but this kind information will give you an indication of the quality — and general industry perception — of the institution.

There are many factors to consider when developing a corporate training strategy, and it is important to strike a balance between the needs of each employee and the needs of your company. You must balance the training that is readily available with the training that is needed. You must balance the cost of the courses you are considering with the return you will get on that investment. And finally, you must balance your present and future needs against what can or cannot be gained by simply staying with the training strategies of the past.CS

Philip Mayson has worked in the cabling industry for 10 years. He is currently an Instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary, where he teaches fiber optic cabling and data communications cabling courses. He can be reached via e-mail at phil.mayson@sait.ab.ca.


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