Two prominent labor organizations say it will be an uphill battle over the next 10 years to get enough trained manpower to wire the nation's commercial buildings for state-of-the-art communications services, especially if it means convincing young people that telecommunications installation is a career worth pursuing.
Attracting new talent to professional installation careers, say the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), is as much about rewiring America's attitudes toward the construction industry and skilled labor careers as it is about wiring the nation for the information age.
"Unfortunately, the prosperity of the last decade and the glamorizing of overnight high-tech wealth have moved many people to forget the honor of the skilled trades and their value in the workplace," says IBEW International president John Barry.
While concurring that apprentice training programs are key to bringing more qualified beginners into the industry, BICSI (Tampa, FL) is upbeat in its outlook, citing a more qualified workforce that's increasingly returning to the classroom.
Joe Jones, BICSI manager of education, says vocational schools and community colleges have embraced the organization's "apprentice-level-only" training license program. The installer education programs, he says, opened the door for more creative approaches with the school systems, including an intense 16-hour preparative course called "DD100: Introduction to Voice Data Cabling Systems" that has been adapted by Valencia Community College in Orlando. The college has incorporated DD100 and the BICSI apprentice installation course within its computer engineering technology program.
BICSI saw signs of the looming labor shortfall several years ago, and in 1996, its board of directors created a three-level training and registration program for installers. "The best response was to create a comprehensive but affordable program that would produce technicians who could be productive on the job in a relatively short period of time," Jones says. Since the program launched in 1997, more than 6,000 voice, video, and data installers have been trained and registered.
Before instituting its program, BICSI officials found that nearly 70% of installer training was from a "looking-over-the-shoulder, on-the-job" approach. But in today's high-end wiring environment, Jones points out, "customers want standards-compliant installers and designers. The requirement to become BICSI-registered to meet bid requirements is definitely a driving force that supports the need for training."
Another is money. Good money. BICSI is encouraged that the word is getting out about the excellent pay available for qualified installers. In a recent Cabling Installation & Maintenance salary survey, the national average installer salary for high school graduates was $24,908 per year. But the average for those with BICSI training more than doubled to $53,944. The Feb. 1, 2000 edition of the Wall Street Journal reported that telecom installation is one of the top-five fastest-growing occupations-a 48.3% increase in average salary since 1991.
According to NECA/IBEW research, an additional 50,000 telecommunications technicians/installers will be needed to meet nationwide demand between now and 2010-and that's just for commercial installations. For its part, the labor organizations are joining a growing corporate trend in offering intensive, earn-as-you-learn apprentice training programs. The NECA/IBEW curriculum, leads to NJATC (National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee) certification. In addition to a modest salary of between $50,000 and $75,000 over a three-year period, apprentices receive health and pension benefits and college credits.
Still, NECA and IBEW say more needs to be done, and they hope to unite the resources of the business, education, and labor communities to help counteract the perceived installer shortage. Help may already be on the way. BICSI is a member of the Consortium for Electronic Systems Technician Training, comprising many "low-voltage" (voice, data, and video) associations in the home and building industry who want to recruit and train qualified installers. The consortium, in conjunction with the National Center for Construction Education and Research, has created a three-level program for electronics systems technicians for use in schools and has a Website, www.hightechjobs.org, that includes information about the program, recruitment, and a national job bank.
Applauding the desires of groups like NECA/IBEW, Jones adds, "Any effort to produce a better-trained workforce is good for our industry, whether that effort comes directly from BICSI or from other industry groups or corporations."