Training can be one of the best investments a contractor or installer of communications cabling can make. While many seek training to get certified, the real benefits are gaining the knowledge and skills to enter new markets, greater efficiency during construction projects, familiarity with new technology and a better basis for distinguishing hype from reality in the marketplace. The secret to getting a good return on your investment in training is to choose the right program. Doing so requires understanding what you can expect from various types of training organizations and what the certifications offered mean in the real world.

Cabling certification

Before we talk about training, let’s talk about certification. Certification is the primary goal of many people seeking training, but the goal of training should be to gain knowledge and skills, with the certification being proof of attaining proficiency in that field.

What does certification really mean? It means someone—basically anyone who wants to—gives you a certificate that indicates you have accomplished something. It is important to understand what is behind that piece of paper. In the case of cabling certification, unlike the cabling itself, there are no industry standards for training and certification. The standards for any certification are set by the organization offering it, and the quality of the certification depends on the requirements that organization sets for itself.

Cabling certification requirements must include tests of an applicant’s knowledge about the cabling specialties included in the certification and proof, usually in the instructor’s judgment, that the applicant has achieved acceptable levels of skills in the processes used for cabling installation. Merely attending a course is not acceptable for legitimate certification. Testing of students is mandatory.

Often the biggest issue is who recognizes the certification, because many training courses are chosen as a result of the certifications granted. Sometimes certification is required by manufacturers to be an official installer of their products and participate in their marketing and guarantee programs. Users who have been sold on a single manufacturer’s products and want the warranty may require that company’s certification.

The general recognition of a certification does not come easily or quickly. It takes time for users to test certified personnel and verify their competence and for word-of-mouth recommendations to become widely accepted. Certifications offered by independent organizations may not be widely recognized because the organization is unknown and the basis of the certification is suspect. Over the years, some trainers have created official sounding names for their certifications as an attempt to create credibility, but the real status comes out under scrutiny.

The most credible certifications come from professional societies that represent an industry and who fully document their certification programs. Industry experts, who have both the knowledge of the technology and experience doing the work to make the certifications meaningful, should create the certifications. Getting consensus from a group such as this requires a lot of work, but the results are worth it. Generally, professional societies will have a good following in the industry and many organizations teaching certification courses under their banner.

Training on cabling

For premises communications cabling, complete training needs to include copper, fiber and the cabling to support wireless access points. Some training only covers one or two of these subjects, especially training from manufacturers who teach you about their products or courses to update installers on particular subjects. Therefore, several training courses may be needed for completeness.

Training needs to focus on the design, documentation, installation and testing of products that meet industry standards, not the standards themselves. Too much premises cabling training focuses on cabling standards, such as TIA-568 (USA) or ISO 11801 (international), which are component standards written for the manufacturers of cabling products, not contractors or installers.

Cabling training may focus on three basic areas: designing a network, installing the cabling and testing it. Depending on the type of cabling and the scope of the installation, three different specialized people or crews may be working on the project. On small projects, the contractor may do everything. On large projects, design will probably be done by one person or group, installation by another and final testing and documentation by a third group. Training, therefore, may be divided up appropriately to the skills necessary for each job.

All training needs to focus on KSAs—knowledge, skills and abilities. Knowledge comes from classroom time. The secret of classroom instruction in cabling is to focus on the practical information needed for the job. Some fiber optic courses spend a day teaching classical optics to installers as though they were physics students. That wastes class time and may discourage many potentially good installers who get turned off by confusing college-level material. Training should focus on the practical knowledge needed instead: what is the jargon of the industry, what components are commonly used, how they are assembled into cabling systems, and what testing and troubleshooting is required.

Developing skills requires practice, so any training must include adequate hands-on labs to develop skills. Hands-on training can allow both the instructor and student to determine whether the student has the ability to perform the tasks required with sufficient skill—or if they should pursue another profession. About half the time spent in the course should be hands-on labs. Making the labs as realistic as possible will help the student cope with the real world, so schools that have their own permanent facilities should have hardware similar to real world installations.

Obviously, online training cannot provide the hands-on lab experience needed by installers. Online courses can be used to gain some knowledge about cabling or review material but cannot develop skills and prepare techs for actual installation. One online course claims you can develop skills in fiber optics in only four hours online. Don’t believe it.

Good training takes time, especially hands-on lab time. You are not going to learn everything about premises cabling in a half-day or one-day course. There is too much to learn for such little time. Training in unshielded-twisted pair copper takes at least two days, fiber another two or three days, and wireless probably another day. Since longer courses are less efficient and many installers hate to take too many days off at any one time, taking a course on copper, another on fiber and a short course on wireless may be more logical.

Perhaps the most important factor in the quality of the course is the instructor. Everyone remembers the great teachers (and the awful ones) from their past. A good instructor can make learning easier and more enjoyable.

What makes a good instructor? They must be knowledgeable about the subject, a good communicator and have a lot of patience. Some instructors think communications is one way—toward the student—but good instructors get feedback from their students and teach the material accordingly.

In cabling, good instructors may come from either an installation or a teaching background. A good teacher is used to learning new materials and communicating it to the students. Many installers know the material well and can explain it clearly to the students, and they can tell stories about real-world situations.

Many organizations that offer certification to students also offer instructor certification. Within The Fiber Optics Association (FOA), years were spent developing an instructor-certification program. We always required instructors to be technically certified with the FOA Certified Fiber Optic Technician (CFOT) program before they could teach a CFOT course at an FOA-approved school. We also require every instructor to have an Instructor Specialist certification. Our self-study course for instructor certification is especially helpful to installers who are learning how to teach.

If you are taking any certification course, ask if the instructor has been certified in the specialty of that course and by whom. That will determine for you what you’ll get out of the course.

Choosing a training program

Training can come from many sources: colleges and universities, apprenticeship programs, manufacturers, independent trainers and organizations, even contractors who run their own in-house training programs. These programs may have different points of view, cover different materials and have diverse goals. Choosing the proper one for you or your organization requires some work.

Choosing a training course requires investigating the curriculum to ensure the course covers the material of interest, provides adequate hands-on times for skills development, and offers reasonable facilities for the class. The school should have instructors certified in the specialty they are teaching. If certification is needed, the organization must offer one that is valid. And one way to evaluate the quality of the course is to ask what percentage of the students pass the certification exam the first time. If the number is low, the course may be substandard.

A final warning: In today’s business climate, the economic condition of the school is important. You are likely to make a substantial upfront payment for your course, and you would like some assurance that the company will still be in business when the date for the training course arrives. Use good judgment in evaluating the training organizations you consider.

HAYES is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.