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Some Straight Talk About Installer Training

Forget this notion of vendor certification programs, the simple solution is for government, vocational schools and industry to support a standardized training program.


May 1, 2007  


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As an electrician and electrical contractor, entering the data communications field in the early 1990s was an exciting new endeavor. It would end up also being both rewarding and frustrating.

Exciting because as an electrician I had every qualification I could obtain in the electrical construction and industrial field including being a master electrician and licensed electrical contractor in Toronto, as well as holding licenses from other provinces.

In 1993 I entered data communications and more specifically fiber optics as a sideways move from the electrical field.

I often joke that I spent the first two years on the telephone as I gathered information on materials, tools and methods, creating files on all these products and making good use of the companies’ 1-800 numbers and mail-in reply cards.

The Rewards: I soon realized that data communications installers and fiber optics installers in particular, were generally being paid 20-50% more per hour than electricians.

A lot of work was piece based, which paid installers extremely well.

At the same time, electricians went through four or more years of an apprenticeship, passed rigid exams and were required to hold a license, and with this came some liability.

The data communications installer, at least at the time, needed no certification and often was on the job with very meager experience — and for this received much higher compensation.

The Frustration: My first awakening into the data communications business occurred in 1994 when I attempted to buy 10 sets of tools to equip a fiber optic class. I faxed in the order to a supplier and received no reply.

A few days later another supplier called up and told me that if I wanted fiber optic tools and materials I had to buy them through his company.

Imagine the surprise and frustration I felt. I had been purchasing electrical materials, tools and services for 25 years and had never been told whom I had to purchase from.

If that was not bad enough, vendors started approaching me. They wanted me to be part of their certification courses so that I could install their products.

I quickly realized that data-communications was much different from the electrical industry.

I also found that the certification from a vendor was considered very important to the customer and also that this “vendor certification” meant the following: the installed system (vendor A) must contain only their products. If I installed another company’s products I could lose (Vendor A) certification. If I did not purchase a specific amount of product a year I could lose my (Vendor A) certification.

In addition, a Vendor A system was easy to sell to my customer because it had a “lifetime” warranty rather than their competitor’s only “15-year” warranty.

Now, the vendor did not specify whether it was the customer’s life, the system life or heaven forbid my life that this time period applied to. But they did have inserted in the fine print that any change made to the system by anyone other than them would void all warranty.

In other words, if an installer changed a pair of wires on a block, the warranty could be technically void. And the most amazing thing to me was that they were able to sell this to a customer.

The data communications customer and installer are obviously subservient to the vendors and manufacturers. And to the vendors and manufacturers this was an arrangement made in heaven.

As an electrician, had any company said to me that their receptacle or switch could only be installed in “their” box with “their” cover plate they would have been laughed at. Materials are produced to interoperability standards to ensure that they are compatible. And interoperability standards include all components in a data communications system to ensure compatibility in the same way as they would in an electrical or a plumbing system.

Had any company said that we must take their training program to install their products and we would lose this certification if we installed another company’s products, again they would have been laughed at by the electrical industry.

I can remember a couple of instances over the past 30 years that this idea was floated within the electrical industry, but it was a non-starter and quickly died. Generic training for most skills has had a long and successful history worldwide.

Somehow at some point in time, the data-communications industry users allowed communications equipment manufacturers to tell them what was best for them, what they should buy and who they should purchase from. It is time for customers and users to reclaim this right. The result of this is many “total solutions” by manufacturers that end up as the most expensive type of installation, with the most parts, and not necessarily the best system.

The Solution: Certification for fiber optics installers began with my affiliation with the Fiber Optic Association (www.foa.org) around the time it was formed in 1997. Founded by Jim and Karen Hayes, the objective of the association was to set certification standards within the industry and also be non-vendor specific.

At last count, the FOA, which is managed by a five-person board none of whom are part of the vendor community, had upwards of 20,000 certified installers across North America and the Caribbean.

An advisory board has a minority number of vendors. While vendor control is not wanted or possible, the input from them is needed and should be given freely. For the fiber optic industry this has a proven history of success that has served the industry well.

However, for the copper industry there is still the same confusion. Nova Scotia and Ontario at least have a “Network Cabling Specialist” designation and an apprenticeship program.

In Nova Scotia, this program is supported well with appropriate code changes, but in Ontario, the code sections 60 and 54 were removed in 1983. The Electrical Safety Authority and provincial politicians have not yet found the intestinal fortitude to reinstate these sections, despite renewed fire and safety concerns from the insurance industry, with large network systems in buildings installed without the advantage of codes, standards or inspections.

The simple solution is for government, vocational schools and industry to support a standardized training program for structured cabling installers. This ideally would have vendor support, but not control.

A new organization, and a long awaited breath of fresh air to the industry, called the Structured Cabling Association www.scausa.org/ (SCA) recently hit the ground running as the industry’s first “non-profit professional society” focusing specifically on education, certification and standards.

This is modeled after the Fiber Optic Association and, I feel, is the solution to the problem. Will we see an immediate change? No, certainly not. It will take some time for people to be trained and certified through this program. But it will come to be in time. Customer acceptance is a prime requirement and this comes through non-vendor specific customer education.

Venders must be willing to support the training and certification efforts without strings attached and some do a commendable job with this.

Unfortunately, others still think a training institution is a threat to them or is competing with them and will even have the gall to suggest that the training institution should purchase their products to demonstrate in the classroom.

Vendors must readily support the program with product support. Governments at all levels have a role to play and must support this with community college programs as well as providing adequate codes and standards for teachers and industrial instructors to teach to.

Government has an obligation to protect consumers by providing standards that are not vendor controlled.

Lastly, of course, is the data
communications installer who must realize that he or she is part of an exciting, fast growing and lucrative field.

And that person must commit to becoming knowledgeable and also certified in this skill all the while committing to life-long learning to keep abreast of the flood of new products.

William Graham is an electrical contractor, a certified fiber optic specialist in testing, connectorizing and splicing through the Fiber Optic Association. He operates Mississauga Training Consultants and can be reached at 905-785-8012 or via e-mail at mrfiber@canada.com.