Ops Need a Few More Skilled Techs3/12/2000 7:00 PM Eastern
Several years ago, the most Alan Babcock had to worry about
was making sure his technicians knew how to connect the right wires so that cable TV
delivered pictures and sounds to customers.
Today, things have changed. The cable revolution has meant
that technicians need to worry about a myriad of connections that provide digital
television, Internet access and video-on-demand to the consumer at home, while cable
engineers are looking at increasingly sophisticated headends that resemble phone-company
Consequently, this rapid change has created a knowledge gap
in both hardware and software that the industry is scrambling to fill.
"There's a gap in the skill sets," said
Babcock, director of development training for the Society of Cable Telecommunications
Engineers. "The sophistication in the broadband network is increasing rapidly. In
general, the customer today is a whole lot smarter about the applications they are looking
for and the ability to interconnect different applications."
Cable companies and related associations are trying to
overcome this educational void in various ways, Babcock said.
The SCTE, for instance, encourages its members to continue
their education through classes offered by the organization, as well as training programs
conducted by manufacturers of new products.
The association has also started to run seminars at
conferences to help technical personnel get up to speed in hot areas like in-home
"There are a number of aftermarket products [sold] off
the shelf that tie the equipment together," Babcock said. "The cable technician
going into the home will have a real challenge as to how they are connected."
The SCTE is also working with community colleges,
particularly in the Los Angeles area, to increase the number of people working in the
cable industry. "If a cable operator is hiring someone directly out of high school,
they may be challenged to learn the job," Babcock said. "We're trying to
make our training as easy as possible."
David Bukovinsky, vice president for broadband services at
Cable Television Laboratories Inc., said the current educational void is a natural
evolution for an industry that is becoming more sophisticated.
"It has to do with the whole transition of the
industry," he said. "Historically, we've been providing video downlinks.
Now we have the entire industry transitioning into a much more high-technology industry.
The cable industry is feeling the same pressure as telecom is."
The pressure hits smaller operators harder than big ones.
Middletown, N.Y.-based Mediacom Communications Corp. is a case in point. The rapidly
upgrading MSO serves 744,000 customers with 1.1 million homes passed in 21 states, and it
is struggling to hire 50 people who are knowledgeable in two-way plant, as well as
software and the technology used to run computers.
"There aren't enough people around to hire,"
lamented Joseph Van Loan, the MSO's senior vice president for technology.
He said Mediacom is having to adjust its hiring criteria
"just to get even," and it is doing a lot of its training on the job by moving
employees around to various locations so they can cross-train within the company.
Mediacom also sends its employees to classes conducted by
manufacturers to help bridge the knowledge gap, Van Loan said.
"There was a belief that acquisitions and mergers
would result in a loss of jobs," he added. "Instead, technical people have full
Large MSOs face their own challenges in attracting people
with the right educational background.
"This is a real problem for the industry," Time
Warner Cable chief technology officer Jim Chiddix said. "You can't expect
someone who is a great technician to fully understand the software and manage a
His company has gone outside of the industry to hire
people, but new employees need "to live in the guts of the business for a while"
before they fully understand its complexities, he added. "This is something you learn
Time Warner hopes its parent company's merger with
America Online Inc. will help to solve some software problems, like those associated with
billing and increasingly complex set-top boxes.
"Ever since the first addressable converters came out,
we've increasingly been dependent on software," Chiddix said. "As we move
into interactive television and interactive content, there's an expertise at AOL that
is going to be very useful. We don't have that expertise in some areas."
Chiddix admitted, however, that it is "way too
simple" to say Time Warner will solve all of its educational problems through the
"The big opportunity is in interactive
applications," he said. "AOL has a body of expertise that will be helpful. It
does not mean we can stop worrying about software systems. We have to be knowledgeable and
self-sufficient in managing software vendors and understanding the software."