FTTx installation calls for expanded skillset:

In my role as President of The Fiber Optic Association, I look for job opportunities in the fiber optic field; we created an online database where our Certified Fiber Optic Technicians (CFOTs) can offer their services. I get calls from companies looking for people, which I post in our online newsletter. And, of course, we work through our FOA-approved schools to help their students find jobs. FTTx (the generic term for fiber to the home/premises/curb) has become the most active area for recruitment.

In the last year, we have been working with Verizon on its FTTP (fiber to the premises) programs, as they have been looking for many workers. It takes many installers to create a fiber network that connects millions of homes. On the East Coast, Verizon expected to hire up to 800 installers in 2006. On the West Coast last fall, it had 200 openings in Southern California alone. In addition, it is using many independent contractors in cities where it does not have a large contingent of workers available already.

Several of the FOA-approved schools are trainers for other phone companies, and the schools work to train current employees in new technology such as FTTx. We have been helping them with course development and with pro-viding new certification programs like our CFxT for FTTx techs and AFOT for advanced training.

These projects have given us considerable insight into the nature of the changes in the jobs available, which is important feedback to the contractor/installer community. FTTx involves some different skills from traditional OSP installations, depending on the installation methods chosen. Traditional telco OSP installations have one crew pulling cable, one splicing and maybe even another testing, then a final crew installing and turning up the equipment. A FTTx crew is often expected to do all this itself to keep costs to a minimum.

The skill set for some FTTx installers has become more extensive than just pulling and splicing fiber optic cable. Some installations don’t even require splicing or termination; they use preterminated cables that are simply installed and plugged in. But the installers are expected to also install the optical network terminals on the customer premises; connect it to the customer’s phone, computer and CATV cabling; install necessary software; and configure PCs and test out the phone, Internet and TV communications. Fortunately, the non-fiber skills are familiar to today’s typical PC-savvy technician.

Some of the FTTx installers will be retrained copper techs from the telcos. Verizon announced that it planned to spend $22.9 billion (yes, billion) between now and the end of 2010 on FTTx projects, but it would save $4.9 billion in maintenance costs on its aging copper cable plants. That means a lot of those guys you see driving around all day and night in telco trucks fixing those old copper wires will be available for retraining.

But that’s not going to be enough techs to connect the millions of homes that are on schedule for FTTx connections. Many more techs will need to be hired and trained. I figure if a crew can connect two FTTx homes a day, it can only do about 500 homes per year. One million homes per year will require at least 2,000 techs, assuming 100 percent efficiency, which, of course, is impossible, as the homes will be spread all over the country. The industry will easily absorb all the techs that the FOA-approved schools can produce.

The FOA-approved schools are the world’s largest network of fiber optic trainers, which is why we were approached about developing a FTTx certification program. Of course, many of our schools specialize in other areas, so FTTx is not on their agenda. Others specialize in telco training, so the FOA worked closely with them in developing the program. But interest from the others has also been strong, and from some seemingly unlikely places. For example, the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) organizations have expressed great interest in the programs because International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers contractors are doing FTTx projects already. Some military trainers have also shown interest, as trained military personnel leaving the service realize the job opportunities created by FTTx.

Fiber techs interested in fiber to the home jobs need to brush up on their computer skills and maybe learn a bit about CATV. Apprentices in NJATC telecom programs should learn those skills as part of their training.     EC

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