Closing the Fiber Expertise Gap

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Pros and Cons of 5 Different Training Methods —

The first article in this 2-part series explained how to maximize the quality and productivity of your fiber optic project through the selection and management of subcontractors. (See “You’re Hired!” in the September 2019 issue: https://www.isemag.com/2019/09/telecom-contractor-hiring-managing-strategies/.) The article discussed documenting the project design, selecting contractors, properly communicating the design, and monitoring the quality of the subcontractor’s performance during execution.

This month’s article, the last of the 2-part series, reviews expertise gaps and training strategies when working with contractors. Hiring subcontractors not only closes a manpower gap on large projects; it also closes an expertise gap. Subcontractors and consulting engineers often have skills that the operating company does not.

A familiar example might be hiring a consulting engineer to draw up system plans or draft a Statement of Work. For a company installing an FTTx system for the first time, this is often the best way to determine the optimum placement of splitter cabinets and Multi Service Terminals (MSTs). Consulting engineers have specific expertise for this task, which is not easily duplicated. They also have dedicated software to make the task more efficient and precise.

Hiring outside talent is nonetheless a perishable solution. When the consultant departs, their expertise leaves with them. Designs, documents, and any work done by the consultant, remain behind and that may represent an acceptable return on investment. But future projects requiring similar skills may again require the expertise and expense of a consultant.

Another alternative or complementary strategy is training internal personnel. This represents an investment in your company’s long-term capabilities as well as helps improve the morale and retention of skilled employees.

Closing the Expertise Gap With Training

The expertise gap can exist in any technology area, but gaps are often found in fiber optic (FO) expertise; much of it due to simple unfamiliarity, novelty, or lack of any prior formal training. Similar gaps exist in the arena of almost any relatively new, rapidly growing technology (e.g., data centers, 5G, Distributed Antennas (DAS), et. al.) Both operators and contractors can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating this expertise gap through training.

5 Different Training Delivery Methods

Training comes in many shapes and sizes and is not “one size fits all”. Here we examine 5 different training delivery methods.

Training Investment. Training is an investment that can have a positive return on investment, paying for itself over a short term.

Training Investment. Training is an investment that can have a positive return on investment, paying for itself over a short term.

Method 1. Becoming an Expert — Standardized Training
Becoming an expert typically involves an investment in formal training, often leading to certification. Achieving actual “expert” status usually involves both formal training and extensive experience.

However, high quality, narrowly focused training courses of even a week or so can bring skills and knowledge to highly functional levels relatively quickly. We generally require our consultants, and even subcontractors, to verify their expertise through certification from various standardizing bodies. Many of these shorter, formal courses require passing hands-on and written tests, resulting in certification.

Training courses can vary widely in scope, design and quality, but those certified by qualified 3rd parties represent an important level of Quality Control. A good course should have a proper balance of theory, practical exercises, and extensive hands-on practice. Course content should be up-to-date, and equipment used in the course should be representative of current equipment deployed in the field. Good instructors will allow companies to bring some of their own gear, so they can develop expertise that is applicable immediately following the class.

Pros:
As this is formal pre-programmed training, the instructor, presentation materials, and hands-on labs, are well supported and generally high quality.
Content is often oriented on a specific certification and/or job.
Certification testing is often included.
Progressions of levels of certification are also often an option.
Students may benefit from interactions with people from other organizations.
If delivered off-site, the student is away from his/her work site, so can be immersed in the training and not distracted by daily tasks.

Cons:
Takes student away from daily tasks.
Can include additional travel costs and more time away from work.
May cover material that is not applicable or needed for the student’s specific role.

Method 2. Instilling Specific Skills — Custom Training
Sometimes a general fiber optic training course isn’t the most efficient answer for your needs. Purchasing customized training, focusing on skills that your personnel need, may be an effective solution. For example, people performing QC on a subcontractor’s splicing work may not need extensive instruction on fiber transmission or testing; they need to be familiar with splicing methods, routing of trays, and proper assembly of closures.

In one example of custom training, a company had 20+ technicians who had performed plenty of fiber fusion splicing and testing, but only on single fiber FTTx drop cables. Much of the content of a standardized course would be largely repetitive for them. Before embarking on a high-count fiber backbone project, they made a decision for custom training that included classroom time as well as very specific hands-on training. After classroom learning and exercises, technicians were broken into small teams. The teams were supervised loading cables into an OSP closure, and they each spent hours splicing 12- and 24-fiber trays. When they were deployed to the field, they had the skills to perform all the tasks needed, including knowledge of the specific hardware.

In the end, the cost of this type of training can potentially pay back quickly with a lower than average error and re-work rate. This saves future truck rolls to troubleshoot and repair installation errors, and gets the initial job done in less time.

Pros:
On-site training eliminates travel costs.
Training can be very specific to the students’ needs, and can incorporate their hardware and tools, if needed.
More students can often be trained; but planning to minimize impact on operations is important.

Cons:
The company becomes responsible for the training venue quality.
The proximity of the student to their daily job environment often allows for significant interruptions; students being pulled out of training on an ad hoc basis can degrade training effectiveness.
Students may not be as engaged, and may not complete all the course hours.

Method 3.Train the Trainer / Internal Training Options
In this case, training costs can be reduced by simply training an in-house trainer. Many larger companies have their own training staff. Although this may seem to be a cost-effective solution, it has both some advantages and some disadvantages.

Pros:
Low-cost solution to have those already on staff train others.
Trainer is generally more familiar with the company practices and equipment, and it is often easier to schedule with short notice.

Cons:
The quality of instruction is dependent on skill and knowledge of the trainer.
The scope of instructor’s knowledge and training is limited to internal company knowledge and may be dated; so, this approach may not be optimal for new technologies.

Method 4. On-the-Job Training
This common type of training, On-the-Job Training, or OJT, often involves shadowing a more experienced tech and/or jumping on a “ride-along” to learn from someone who has “been there, done that”. Although this can be very attractive, it also can have some mixed results.

Pros:
Lowest short-term cost for training.
The technician can get some work done during the training period.
It gets the employee on the job fast and can provide a quick ramp up — especially for new staff that have some experience.

Cons:
For training to take place, the higher-skilled technician’s productivity is impacted.
Any bad habits, misconceptions, or poor work practices, may be passed on from tech to tech.
If the impact of training on the project schedule is underestimated, the project may fall behind, training efforts abandoned, and project resource (esp. rentals) costs are increased.
Also, just because a technician is skilled and experienced, he/she may not have the skills it takes to be a trainer; not everyone is designed to teach.

Finally, one of the purposes of formal training is to allow the trainee to make mistakes with low risk. When mistakes are being made on actual network components, OJT can become expensive; thousands of dollars’ worth of labor and equipment can be destroyed in a short time.

Method 5. Online Training
Online training, or self-paced training, can be useful in learning specific, limited technologies or processes that are not overly varied or complex. Improvements in AR, VR, and instructional design, are expanding
the applicability of this option. At present, it is still best for imparting knowledge more than true field skills.

Pros:
There are no travel costs.
Training is accessible from almost anywhere, any time, on multiple platforms.
The technician can schedule the training when he or she is most alert and receptive to the content.
The content delivered is consistent for all students.

Cons:
The effectiveness of online content to engage the student varies widely.
The unavailability of an instructor to clarify difficult content may limit effectiveness for certain content or certain students.
It may be necessary for management to provide additional content or context to relate the “canned” online information to the technician’s daily tasks.

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Conclusions

Major fiber optic projects can be exciting and profitable. They can also be challenging, and stress the existing expertise levels of many companies. Before undertaking a major project, a company must identify knowledge gaps and skills gaps, and plan to mitigate them by hiring expertise via consultants or creating internal expertise through training.

Training is an investment in the business, and can have a positive return on investment, paying for itself over a remarkably short term in some cases. Training funds should be allocated wisely by selecting the training content and delivery method by weighing the pros and cons of each method, and ensuring the choice made is most appropriate to the situation and budget.

 

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About Author

Steve Wolszczak is Fiber Optic Technology Manager, Light Brigade. In the fiber optics industry for more than 30 years, Steve has a strong background in fiber, cable, connectivity, amplification, and splicing, and is especially focused on fiber optic testing. He has worked for several industry leaders, including Corning, Fitel, Molex, and JDSU/Viavi. He is an avid teacher and had his own training company prior to joining Light Brigade in 2018. Steve develops course content, and is involved with several technology committees relating to certifications. For more information, please visit www.lightbrigade.com.

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