To get started in fiber optics, you need to follow a simple path. First, if you are looking at it as a new career, you must research the available jobs and determine what is expected of a worker in that field. If you are working in a related field and want to add fiber optics to your portfolio, you can jump straight into learning the new technology.
As with any career change, education or training is needed. The secret is finding what is right for you. You should focus on knowledge, skills and abilities. Start with your abilities. Do you have the dexterity to do the kinds of work fiber optic techs do? You need fine motor skills to work with hair-thin fibers and color perception to mate the right fibers and cables when splicing. For outside plant work, you also may need to be able to perform heavy construction duties.
You can gain knowledge from studying, and you can acquire skills from labs. You can do some studying online, but developing skills generally requires getting good training.
When I began working in fiber optics in 1989, most of us were making it up as we went along, since we pioneers had no history to call upon. I was in the test equipment business. Virtually all of our customers were new to fiber optics, and many asked where to get training.
Not having anywhere to send them, we started training them ourselves. Our expertise was the basics and testing, so we brought in others involved in cables, connectors, splices and systems to help us. Sometimes we would do seminars for special customers such as computer companies, government agencies or schools, but often this group and I would pick a city, send out press releases and mailings, and hold a seminar there.
Many of these seminars had more than a hundred attendees because so many people were interested in fiber optics. By the 1990s, we were running week-long training conferences called Fiber U several times a year, including at conventions of organizations like the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Around 1995, life got much easier. Two new things emerged: the World Wide Web and the Fiber Optic Association (FOA). The internet simplified the access to and sharing of information. Fiber U instructors created the FOA to be the professional society of fiber optics, representing all aspects of the industry. It is chartered to promote professionalism in fiber optics through education, certification and standards. Full disclosure: I am a founder of the FOA and its current president.
If you are interested in getting started in fiber optics today, you can find a lot of information on the web. It’s mostly free, but, of course, much of it suffers from the same problem the Internet has with any topic: credibility.
The FOA has created resources you can trust, such as the free online self-study programs at Fiber U (www.fiberu.org). All Fiber U programs are noncommercial, and created by industry experts. The FOA also has a YouTube channel with 100-plus educational videos and an online guide with almost 1,000 pages of technical material.
If you intend to study online, start by learning the jargon. Learning fiber optics jargon will not only help you understand the technology, but it also will enhance your ability to impress at job interviews and when talking to customers.
Then you need to find training. Before you sign up for a course, ask some basic questions: How long is the class? What do students learn in the classroom? How much time do students spend in the labs? What kinds of equipment do the labs have? How are the instructors qualified to teach the course?
A basic fiber optic course to get you started needs three to five days. A good fiber course for technicians will briefly cover the theory and focus on applications, components, installation and testing. At least half of the course time should be spent in labs learning cable preparation, splicing, termination and testing using real tools and instruments.
Finally, ask who approves the course, what certifications they offer and who recognizes them. Many trainers will give you a course and a piece of paper at the end, but ensure it’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I recommend FOA-approved schools, including many joint apprenticeship training committees, but of course I’m biased.