For low-voltage contractors, keeping up with the technological changes in the voice/data/video industry means continuing education is necessary. To gain or hold a piece of the evolving market, contractors must focus on all areas of the industry—general technical know-how, business training, manufacturer certification programs and the latest technological innovations.


Contractors such as Schaeffer Electric Co., St. Louis, know all too well the hurdles related to staying trained.


“The greatest challenge facing the contractor today for low-voltage training is keeping up with the pace of changes and new technology in the industry,” said Timothy J. Chettle, president. “Your estimators and crew have to keep on their toes.”


The challenge isn’t just for contractors, but also for those who strive to keep them up to date. Nearly as soon as the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee’s (NJATC) Telecommunications Curriculum Development Training Program releases new training content for coursework, the content is on the way to becoming out-of-date and obsolete, said Terry C. Coleman, the program’s director.


Contractors also face challenges in meeting the need for manufacturer certifications, depending on the products being installed. With so many products on the market, contractors must pick and choose the certifications they will need and send their workers to get trained by those manufacturers. That is no small job, and in addition, they still must get the general training that others provide.


The demand for certifications isn’t new. The distributor sales model—which various low-voltage equipment manufacturers traditionally have used—means resellers and distributors also are the installers. While electrical and low-voltage contractors increasingly are taking this role, it isn’t the traditional model. The distributor sales model minimizes the numbers of participants. Therefore, to get hired for jobs installing and maintaining products from these manufacturers, contractors must send their workers to the manufacturers’ own training programs.


“Even if the contractor has a highly skilled workforce that may be trained in the installation and testing of a system or product, they may still have to send people for training [at the contractor’s cost] to meet any certification requirements for knowledge they already have,” Coleman said.


While contractors have told Coleman that this is just the cost of doing business, it is still a detriment for many.


“Could you imagine if this was the model used on the electrical side of the house? A certification from every manufacturer of electrical receptacles or switches, motor starts or relays, switchgear or transformers, etc.?” he asked.


Contractors that have been into low-voltage work for some time have learned to meet the manufacturers’ needs. For new electrical contractors that want to get into these markets, the certification requirements can be frustrating.


Onto the next


The scope and focus of basic training is also moving beyond low-voltage cable. Today, most low-voltage systems don’t require conduit or other types of raceway to be installed. Instead, switches and other methods of lighting control are becoming low-voltage devices. They no longer connect to branch-circuit wiring, so the National Electrical Code no longer requires them to be placed in raceways. Contractors need to overcome and adapt to these kinds of changes.


“There is still plenty of money to be made and work that needs to be done. My concern is who is going to do it. Training is still the key to getting into new markets,” Coleman said.


The NJATC’s curriculum now covers the rapidly growing wireless area: Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and other such systems.


Class sizes growing


While training demands may seem to be growing, so are the options for contractors. A variety of low-voltage training programs are available, both online and in classrooms, nationally and locally. These opportunities can include manufacturer representatives and programs those companies offer, supplier symposiums around the country, union classes by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), publications, webinars, and lunch-and-learns, as a few examples, said Schaeffer Electric’s Chettle.


The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) offers training programs that have grown exponentially in recent years. The association provides both technical and business-­oriented classes. 


Dave Pedigo, CEDIA’s senior director of learning and emerging technologies, said the greatest growth has been on the business side of the course offerings over the past few years. These business courses cover customer relations and project management, and attendance for them is rising each year.


“Part of that is that business owners realize they’ve weathered the storm economically,” Pedigo said. However, owners may find that they are not yet in the position to weather another one. Instead, it is time for many low-voltage contractors to prepare for the expected low-voltage growth and ensure the industry doesn’t leave them behind. According to CEDIA’s benchmark survey, many low-voltage contractors are more enamored with the technology than running the business side, and that trend may be changing by necessity.


“No one wants to take accounting or finance classes,” Pedigo said, adding that the growth in the market and nature of the business, however, is making that increasingly valuable to low-voltage businesses.


When it comes to Internet protocol (IP) and networking, the greater sophistication of installations has made it necessary to update networking classes and make room for the increasing number of enrollees. Both IP and networking “get very complicated very quickly,” Pedigo said. 


CEDIA, like other providers of training programs, attempts to balance how many old fundamentals should still be offered in training while emerging technologies clamor for attention. To ensure the right coursework is available to those who need it, CEDIA has begun offering the fundamentals online. New technologies more often are taught face to face. For example, individuals can enroll in a class that offers three online classes followed by quizzes to determine whether they have learned the material. If they clear the bar, they can then attend real-life classroom instruction.


“The beauty of that is that, theoretically, everyone is on the same level when they come in,” Pedigo said.


Echoing Coleman regarding certification demands, Pedigo said manufacturer product training is still a must, and the CEDIA training program hosts about 10,000 people through a variety of these such programs, a larger number than those who take CEDIA’s vendor-neutral programs. He said most individuals take a mix of manufacturer and nonmanufacturer courses.


“I’m a firm believer that education is massively important,” Pedigo said. “We’ve come to a time of hyperchange. Things are changing so quickly with such a huge volume of information to learn, [contractors] can’t help but be frustrated at times.” 


However, for low-voltage contractors, it might be worth the effort.CEDIA’s own research has found that revenue in low-voltage installations was up 13 percent last year.


Connected homes will be the area of the greatest growth. According to Cisco Systems, there will be 25 billion devices connected to the Internet in 2015, and the number will have doubled to include everything from standard tablets and phones to wearable technology by 2020. For contractors, that means more training and more revenue ahead.