Manufacturers’ Hands-On Training Is a Key Element
The Fiber Optic Association (FOA) was founded by a very diverse group of committed professionals who were committed to developing a workforce of qualified technicians that could help build the fiber optic networks. The group consisting of two university professors who taught fiber optic courses, two representatives of government agencies including the head of the standards agency for fiber optics, a couple of professional trainers, and trainers working for manufacturers of fiber optic components and equipment.
These manufacturers were all actively training customers and potential customers in the field and all wanted to develop an industry-recognized certification for fiber optic technicians. One of the first things we noticed was companies were interested in buying fiber optic test sets, needed cable, connectors, other fiber optic components, and communications equipment. They were also lacking an understanding of fiber optics and wanted training on cables, splicing, termination, and other installation processes.
Together we developed a basic training program that could be shared across the United States. We also understood that we were stronger together. So, we created cooperative fiber optic training seminars that began with a lecture program and ended with each manufacturer holding hands-on training sessions for their product specialty. (See Figure 1.)
Manufacturer training in fiber optics was a major factor in creating the fiber optic workforce that built the telecom, Internet, and hybrid fiber-coax CATV networks.
Unfortunately, manufacturer training was a victim of budget cutting over time. A more cost-effective solution came into view with the advent of streaming video and online learning. Today, many manufacturers have replaced their live training sessions with online video demonstrations of their products or online training courses.
Thankfully, some forward-thinking companies don’t rely solely on online training. One of the companies today that shares the FOA founders’ philosophy about training is Clearfield. We recently discussed Clearfield’s view of customer training with Kelly Weissmann, Senior Manager of Technical Training and Support. Kelly came to Clearfield from Cincinnati Bell where she was a trainer, and she was originally trained in fiber optics by FOA Master Instructor, Tom Collins.
“We also understood that we were stronger together. So, we created cooperative fiber optic training seminars that began with a lecture program and ended with each manufacturer holding hands-on training sessions for their product specialty.”
Our first question for Kelly was "Why does Clearfield still train the old fashioned in-person way?" “We want our customers to have a positive experience with our products and that requires they know the proper use of the products. Remember 99% of the fiber techs are ‘hands-on’ people who prefer in-person training.”
Kelly noted that Clearfield creates many product videos like most other companies today, but they consider that backup for in-person training, not a substitute. Clearfield has eight people who do their training, and, besides the in-person training, they will accompany a customer’s techs into the field to provide first-time installation support. (See Figure 2.)
Kelly told us that the most common comment they hear from fiber techs is that they do not get enough hands-on training. But besides that complaint, feedback from those techs is also a good source of product ideas—an incentive for innovation.
Clearfield is an FOA approved school and certifies their students through the FOA CFOT program. The structure of their program begins with FOA’s online learning site, Fiber U (fiberu.org), as a prerequisite for class. The students get the classroom knowledge online first. Then, when they attend the typical 3-day class, almost all the time is spent on the hands-on training they want and need.
There is a lot of hand-wringing today about the lack of enough trained workers to build the fiber optic networks the BEAD program and other IIJA infrastructure projects. An excellent source of this training is often overlooked. Structured properly and founded in objective educational learning, manufacturer’s training could be one of the better solutions for workforce development and an effective promotion for the company itself.