In 1999, cable was a fertile field for employment. As with other sectors, an expanding economy flush with Internet excess meant there were often more positions than applicants.
Fast-forward to 2002, and that scene has changed. Cable may not have suffered from as many pink-slip outbreaks as other sectors of the telecommunications industry, but finding a job is tougher.
And the positions that are available now require more skills in advanced video, telephony and data than in the good old days, when an MSO provided just analog TV.
There is little doubt the cable industry has changed, and so too have the jobs. When engineer Larry Schutz started at Charter Communications Inc. in 1995, the MSO served 170,000 cable-television customers.
Now, Charter has 2,144,800 digital video customers, 6,953,700 basicsubscribers and 645,000 cable-modem customers, with voice service set to roll out in the next year or so.
"Cable itself has changed," said Schutz, now Charter's vice president of engineering. "In the good old days, we didn't have fiber, and we didn't run two-way [plant], and we didn't have cable modems."
With the sheer amount of technical skill needed to support all three services, today's engineers tend to be specialists, Schutz said.
"It used to be that he was a jack of all trades," he said. "I would say what characterizes an engineer right now is someone who is very good in an area where he is responsible, and very good at working in a team environment."
Evolving digital technology has led to demand for greater skills among engineers and technical staff. That doesn't just include added acumen in telephony and data.
With the advent of digital service, good old video presents a new picture for even the technicians in the field.
"That's new equipment that they have been introduced to, because before they just dealt with an analog signal," said AT&T Broadband director of corporate learning and development Len Falter. "So now, we have to teach them to analyze that signal, because there are more components to that signal."
For installers, the addition of voice and data to the activation list means tasks that are more complex than climbing poles and adjusting drop boxes. Installers must now take on complex provisioning work as well.
"It's not just about talking about Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their customer problems," said Falter. "There are actually handoffs that have to happen in terms of provisioning the service, if it is a telephony customer, or actually making sure the modem is operating properly, so there is a lot more communication between customer care and technical than in the past."
The addition of a powered telephony product also brings new safety issues.
"Power drop has been something that has not been common to the industry," Falter said. "But now we do have that."
For engineers, the evolving technology means a lot of homework. Charter staff engineer Pragash Pillai came to the MSO after graduating from college with an electrical engineering degree two and a half years ago.
At that time, "I didn't know squat about cable," he conceded.
"The cable industry has changed so fast," Pillai added. "Every day you see new technology and new ways of doing engineering. It just changes so fast, and you have to keep up."
Pillai works with Charter's digital video technology, an area in which there have been rapid innovations with respect to headend gear, as well as issues video- and set-top-box-related issues.
"You have to read a lot," he said. "You have to spend a lot of hours. For me it is not an eight-to-five job, for sure."
The increasing complexity of the cable technical job has prompted the Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers to beef up its member-training programs, particularly in the new-services arena. The new skills in high demand are related to broadband telephony, return-path training and high-speed data, according to SCTE CEO and president John Clark.
"The whole high-speed data and [Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification] deployment are extremely high-demand," he said.
Much of that training occurs at technical conferences, including last January's Emerging Technologies event. Though attendance dropped 20 percent because of the dismal economy, Clark said it proved engineers still saw the benefits of pooling technical information at one event.
"That was a testimony that even in a tight market, people still need to update their skills and that was perceived as a time- and cost-efficient way to do that," he said. "The intensity of the attendance was amazing, meaning that the last session on the last day was still filled to capacity. The interest was still extremely strong."
More moving parts do indeed entail more training for engineers, Charter's Schutz said. But there's an upside: The very technology that requires expanded knowledge can be used to deliver the training.
"We're doing a lot of things that keeps the information available to the folks in the field," Schutz said. "We've got some exciting ideas and things in the works to do that, and I am optimistic we will do a much better job of keeping our folks up to speed."
AT&T HAS PUSH ON
AT&T Broadband has expanded its own staff-training programs, along with the technology, according to Falter.
The MSO has developed a standardized training program for video, voice and data systems. About 4,000 employees, or roughly 25 to 30 percent of AT&T Broadband's work force, have been trained in all three product lines.
Ideally, AT&T Broadband would like all of its technical field personnel to be as familiar with the systems as possible.
"We'd like to actually move most of our technicians that are in the field into a universal-tech concept — which is not uncommon for most MSOs," Falter said. "We've been working on that, and we will pull them through based on the needs of the business."
More services does mean more necessary training, and that puts pressure on managers trying to maintain daily operations while giving staff the needed classroom time.
"That means giving them down time to actually acquire the training," Falter said. "For each additional product, you have almost — with product training and the technical training and the safety-related training — you have about 10 business days that you have to give them on an annual basis," Falter said.
"It's an operational challenge that they face, but they are very committed to do it."
USING THE WEB
As with Charter, AT&T Broadband is also looking to harness Web-based information to make new-product training easier.
"We are looking to actually take more of our instructor-led training programs and actually automate them, transferring them into computer-based programs," Falter said. "We're looking at also devices like PDAs [personal digital assistants] — tools that our technicians and field people can utilize in the field that can help them."
Ongoing training benefits both the MSO and the employee in what's still a harsh job market. Employees find it's in their best interest to widen their skill base, in order to stay on the job.
The trends have definitely changed since the Internet bust, not specifically at AT&T Broadband, but throughout the cable industry, said Falter.
"In 1999 — near the latter part of the year, before things started to kind of turn south a little bit — there were a lot of people just trying to improve their skill sets, and they were looking at it to go find other opportunities, because the market was great," Falter said. "And now, they are doing it because they need to have those skills in order to remain viable. So we are seeing that as well."