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Installer training blues

Two years ago, one industry watcher wrote that the failure to designate the installer has created several downstream problems. Well, guess what? The problem has not improved.

May 1, 2005  

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Bill Graham, the founder of Mississauga Training Consultants, has guided more than 1,200 technicians through an intense five-day installation and splicing fiber optics course he runs out of a specially designed lab that contains all the necessary equipment.

A master electrician by trade, Graham has also worked with Atomic Energy of Canada as a senior skills instructor and spent six years teaching and developing programs in the apprenticeship programs at two Ontario community colleges.

Topics covered in the courses, which are sanctioned by the Fiber Optics Association, include how to prepare cables for termination and troubleshoot and document fiber optic systems.

“My goal as an instructor is to make sure that the students are as familiar with as many different products and methods of installing as possible,” says Graham.

Another option when it comes to training is BICSI. A registered Information Transport Systems (ITS) installer who successfully completes its courses “should be able to conduct site surveys, pull wire/cable, and terminate and test copper and optical fiber cable to the highest level of specification, which currently is Category 6.

“(This) registration provides employers with a means of measuring the competency of job applicants,” a BICSI fact sheet states. “Remember, even the most carefully designed system cannot function optimally unless it is properly installed.”

The problem is that despite the training efforts from these two organizations as well as the certification courses offered by all major structured cabling manufacturers, there appears to be some serious issues occurring in the installation space.

Keith Fortune, Communications Facilities Manager with the Bank of Montreal and member of CNS Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board, has experienced them first-hand.

“During a project, you have to make sure you properly manage your outside business partners all the way down the chain,” he says. “I’ve seen work outsourced to ‘two Bobs and a truck’ and I’ve done nothing but fight all the way through and reach roadblocks trying to talk to them.

“If it’s not bundled and communications people take care of routers and switches, and cabling people take care of the cabling infrastructure, we all get what we want. But when it’s all bundled up and it’s not managed properly, proper procedures can fall through the cracks and it becomes a nightmare.”

Graham recalls one project in which the mistakes made by poorly trained installers ended up costing a customer an additional $200,000.

Incidents such as this are certainly not a new phenomenon. Two years ago, Frank Bisbee, data cable consultant and editor of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based industry newsletter Wireville, expressed outrage about the lack of a proper designation.

“When it comes to labour, the cabling infrastructure industry is absolutely lost,” he wrote in the January 2003 issue of the newsletter. “Currently the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada do not have a designation for a network/datacom installer.

“The closest they come to this animal is a “cable puller”, and that is rated as a non-skilled low-income job. This failure to designate the installer has created several downstream problems. If the government doesn’t recognize the job designation, then there will be no funds for professional education.

“Several community college systems have agreed with our frustration over the lack of training for the communications installer, but they say they can’t do anything about it until it is a recognized job designation. “

Bisbee made the comments several months before Ontario joined Nova Scotia in becoming only the second province to issue a formal trade designation for network cabling specialists.

At least then, there were three colleges in Ontario — Algonquin, Humber and Durham — offering Network Cabling Specialist courses.

All three came about as a result of Ontario’s ministry of training, colleges and universities announcing the availability of the Network Cabling Specialist Certificate of Qualification. The exam, which has been available since April 2003 consists of 100 questions divided among sections that range from planning and preparing for installation and the termination and splicing of cables to performing labeling, testing and documentation.

Before the exam is written, candidates must have 4,500 hours of on-the-job training and letters of references from employers or unions.

Course in jeopardy

“It’s a fantastic way of doing it and ensures everyone has the same knowledge base in terms of building systems and fire and electrical codes,” Walter Borges, program coordinator of the Humber program said at the time. “You’re going to have fully-trained and licensed people working with a network, which is the heart of business right now. It’s such a big responsibility that you need the right trade people to do this work.”

In the past, he said, there have been incidents of “fly-by-night guys” walking into a building and causing havoc by not observing codes that are in place.

His enthusiasm has faded considerably. Of the three colleges that became involved in the apprenticeship venture, Humber is the only one that currently offers a dedicated network cabling specialist course and even that appears to be in jeopardy.

According to Borges, enrolment is in decline and the “initial excitement” of having a program that revolved around the licensing of the trade has fallen by the wayside.

This despite the fact students are taught many skills including how to perform site inspections, assemble and set up tools, materials and equipment, create cable pathways and install cable supports and install Unshielded Twisted Pair, Shielded Twisted Pair, co-axial and fiber optics cable.

At Algonquin, subjects that were once part of the network cabling specialist course have been rolled into the two-year computer systems technician diploma course, while in Durham, a course exists, but students need to apply through the apprenticeship program of the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

Borges is notably upset that a program that goes above and beyond existing government training standards could be on the verge of extinction. “It’s really dried up,” he says. “Right now, the way it’s looking I don’t know if we’ll have a course at all next year because the numbers have gotten that bad.

“To get anything done through the government is a painfully, long and laborious process. To go to this extent and not have (cabling) companies sign on means a lot has been done for nothing. I have courses and labs and equipment. If students don’t come through, they’re going to just sit there and gather dust.”

Graham suggests that while there are certainly many skilled installers in the workplace, it is essential that a customer ask for certification papers and documented proof of past work experience.

“The systems today are much faster and a lot of locations want pigtails spliced on the fiber rather than connectors, which means the guy in the truck has to have a fusion splicer, he says. “They also want proper testing. The need for more and better equipment is putting a lot more pressure on the two guys in a truck.

“Ten years ago, you could join a couple of pieces of fiber and if there was light going through, it worked as well as if it had been installed with a lot of the care. The rules change with VoIP. Unless the reflectance is low, the signal is going to be ghosty.”

Borges, meanwhile, says that every new standard that comes along should highlight the fact that what installers could get away with three or four years ago, they certainly will not be able to get away with now.

The solution, he says, is to license the trade: “It’s there for all others so why isn’t it there for this one? Right now, there is no onus on the contractors to send their guys in for training. As long as they can continue to work under the radar they will.” See also page 20.