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Learning Our Lesson

Standardized education and certification is something most cabling professionals want. But will a government-run system be good for the industry?


December 1, 2000  


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Convergence. The buzz-word that has been used to describe how cable companies, telephone operators, Internet service providers and other technology entities have come together over the past few months and years is not ready for the scrap heap yet. At least not according to those in the cabling arena.

Behind the scenes — and behind the walls — of the cabling industry, the convergence issue is fueling fires beneath the seats of those government officials attempting to wrest control of cabling certification away from industry associations and manufacturers. Given that provincial governments will eventually play a major regulatory role when the various certification programs are amalgamated, there is significant pressure from industry experts that this process, like all ‘installation’ work, be done right the first time through.

Certification will be placed under the exclusive domain of colleges, the curriculums of which are provincially established and controlled. But will this education overhaul make the industry a better, safer place? Or will it simply add another level of bureaucracy to an industry where professionals have survived quite nicely, without feeling the warm breath of government officials breathing down their collective necks?

“Low voltage cabling will always be part of the work of a cabling professional, but it really wasn’t covered in past training because of changes in the technology,” says Blake Clothier, Operations Manager for Able Electric Ltd. in Halifax. “Companies do a lot of in-house training at this point and associations and conferences can keep you up to speed, somewhat, but I think that there is a great demand for standardization of testing in the cabling industry.”

A plethora of courses and programs all claiming to offer the best “certification” around may be one good reason to organize the industry as far as testing goes. Yet, to find out what is really driving this education overhaul, one needs to look under a few more stones.

The East Coast has plenty of those. Nova Scotia is, in fact, leading the push toward the standardization of testing and mandatory certification for the cabling industry. “It’s going to be brought in, but for now the biggest hurdle [for the government] is that this is uncharted territory,” says Glenn Hines, president of Dramis Network Cabling NS Ltd. in Dartmouth, NS. “Sure there are associations out there offering courses and certificates, but how do you know which is the right one?”

Hines has been closely involved in the issue for months, but he also has the ability to step back and put training, education and standardization into valuable, historical perspective. What he sees is an industry experiencing less of a revolution than an evolution. “People call it new, but telephone companies have been doing this sort of work for a hundred years. Of course things started off with simple phone lines and now there are wireless companies working with fiber optics, and explosive growth in PCs has fueled our industry,” he says. When pressed on the industry-versus-government issue, Hines admits, “There are politics and egos here.”

And don’t forget money.

PASSING OVER THE POINTER

To date, testing has largely fallen to associations and manufacturers.

“Eventually there may be third-party manufacturing,” says Zrdavko Crne, Vice President of Communications for Mulvey & Banani International Inc. in Toronto, “but for now it has largely been left up to BICSI, local unions and manufacturers.”

Associations and manufacturers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have been turning profits in the classroom for years and, as a result, may be hesitant to relinquish control of what has become a lucrative revenue stream. The actual pulling of cable and selling of product may be where the “real” money is, but associations charge a healthy chunk of change training industry professionals. BICSI Telecommunications Distribution Design Courses for 2000, for instance, run between two and five days and range in price (for members) from US$395 to US$1,695.

As for manufacturers, they are not likely to be ousted from the classroom anytime soon. And if (or when) provincial governments do take over, the larger manufacturers are likely to simply reinforce their ties with government by offering support and resource materials that will allow them to continue playing a significant role in the education process. After all, students are learning to lay cables that lead to and from these leading manufacturers’ systems.

So, on the one hand, the training issue can be seen as a power play (“When it does happen, industry associations may be required to register as private career colleges” if they want to continue offering courses, says one government official). On the other hand, spokespeople for associations such as BICSI say their organizations are more than willing to hand over their chalk and pointers to the Sheridans, Durhams and other colleges willing to develop course-work, round up students and carry out examinations. A difficult task, especially in Canada.

“In the U.S. they have no problem filling up classes, but in Canada it can be tough to do, given the logistics involved. We are talking about a relatively small number of [cabling professionals] spread across a very large country,” says Greg Porter, Region 5 (Canada) Director for BICSI and Business Development manager for Tyco Electronics, Markham, ON. “When the exams are held, they tend to be in the larger centres such as Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Not a terribly convenient situation for those cabling specialists who happen to ply their trade in Yarmouth, Noranda and Kamloops. As a result, it is not surprising that distance learning and Internet-based education and training have taken off faster than an Ethernet connection. “That’s the big thing from this point on: the virtual campus,” says Porter.

While online course work is developed and the standardization of testing becomes formalized, trainers such as Marcel Levac of LHL Communications Services in Dartmouth, NS, continue to make the rounds offering one-day courses for certified construction electricians and all others doing cabling in commercial buildings. At present, “every installer needs a permit to work in a commercial building,” explains Levac, referring to the regulatory system in Nova Scotia. The province is the first to legislate the need for a person to have a “cabling specialist certificate” if they are to legally lay cable in a commercial building, he adds.

The actual academic hurdle that men and women (of whom there are few in certain sectors of the Canadian cabling industry; please see sidebar) must pass is an exam consisting of approximately 100 questions pertaining to the Canadian Electrical Code, the BICSI Telecommunications Distributors Methods Manual and the BICSI Cabling Installation Manual.

Some certified electricians have had their qualifications “grandfathered” into effect, but most are required to get their papers the old-fashioned way, because while knowing the colour code for a multi-pair cable is valuable knowledge, keeping abreast of the many and rapid changes in installation and connectivity is equally crucial. The principles surrounding installation might not alter drastically, but the technology and standards are constantly evolving. “I believe that new people in the industry should have some formal training,” says Levac. “They need to know what they are doing, and they should also have some idea of what they are getting into before they start pulling cable.”

SETTING THE STANDARDS

This training and education issue has begun to play itself out in various regions in Canada and the U.S. And while America still tends to set the pace in such matters, there is little doubt among industry insiders and government officials that widespread standardization will happen almost simultaneously in North America and Europe. The reason for this roll-out is simple: like the technology it facilitates, cabling, and the industry standards that are put in place, must cross boundaries — provincial, national and internatio
nal.

“There can’t be one set of rules in North America and another in Europe,” says BICSI’s Porter. “This will be an international effort.” One that allows cabling pros in England to go work in Germany or Italy, and one that allows Canadian workers to head to the United States without having to secure new papers.

For now, though, provinces are struggling to pull together a policy to which all local industry players have contributed, and all can agree. As the Nova Scotia example illustrates, it is a process that requires cooperation and deft leadership.

Meet Joe Black. The Acting Director of Apprenticeship in Nova Scotia’s Department of Education says the province is working “very closely” with cabling companies and associations to define trade regulations and adopt the best possible curriculum. “We rely very heavily on [the] industry’s input, and in many ways they will drive the process,” Black says.

In fact, what is driving the process out East these days is a report that was commissioned by the province and tabled in 1999 by a local lawyer. The so-called “North Report” was commissioned to address concerns that low voltage cabling, or more specifically communications cabling, is a potential life/safety hazard. The document also speaks to the issue of how standardization in the cabling industry will evolve, and which department will be responsible for its execution (currently, cabling is under the purview of the Department of Labour, but it has been recommended that it fall under the dominion of the Department of Education).

Specifically, the North Report recommends that, “A new occupation be certified by the Province of Nova Scotia to be referred to as a Network Cabling Specialist” and that “this position be authorized by regulation to perform the installation of communication systems covered by section 60 of the Canadian Electrical Code.” It also states that, “Industry and government should cooperate on the development of the training and curriculum standards leading to the certification of the position of Network Cabling Specialist.”

The report is getting old, fast. But the 18-month-old recommendations are at the heart of changes that are currently taking place in the provinces, albeit slowly. Meanwhile, other provinces are forging ahead with their own training and education initiatives for those who are either entering or about to connect to a career in cabling, and have begun to recognize that cabling professionals are not all created equal. Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Yukon have each adopted the title “communications electrician” and attached training and certification requirements to this designation. In Ontario, where the “network cabling specialists” are at work, cabling is on the curriculum at handful of colleges, including Durham College.

EVERYONE’S A WINNER

“Hopefully things will go vendor-neutral,” says Mulvey & Banani’s Crne, who adds that the only things that might go missing under such a system are the long-term Assurance Warranties that manufacturers currently offer.

The only question that remains is, ‘Who will benefit from improved education and standardization within the cabling industry?’ A strict code of certification means that cabling professionals will have proof of their expert status and companies can hire people and feel comfortable that they are well trained and do not require in-house course work. It also means that consumers will benefit from knowing that the men and women laying their cable are doing the job right.

Says Blake Clothier of Able Electric: “I think everybody benefits from standards.”CS

David Napier is a freelance writer and editor from Halifax who now lives in Toronto.


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