The application of fiber optics has been growing rapidly. The primary reason is the explosion of projects for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), but we’re also seeing the same kind of growth in data centers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) for cellular in large public facilities, fiber-to-the-antenna on cell towers, and municipal fiber networks supporting education, public safety, security and intelligent transportation systems, alternative energy projects and more. In fact, fiber seems to be the communications medium of choice for practically everything.
That means the need also is growing for more trained workers. We have seen 20 percent growth in the number of students at Fiber Optic Association (FOA) schools getting trained and certified. The FOA works with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprenticeship programs and Communications Workers of America training programs. We have seen an increase in online students at Fiber U, the FOA’s free online training site. More experienced workers are coming to the FOA and applying for direct certification through our Work-To-Cert program.
These FOA-trained-and-certified workers are part of the success stories we hear almost daily about working on installation projects everywhere. It’s obvious to the FOA that training, certification and success go hand-in-hand.
Of course, what is obvious to the FOA is not obvious to everybody. The focus on cutting costs, especially the cost of labor, is widespread. Hiring unskilled or under-skilled workers and ignoring employee training is seen as a way to save money and create more profit. Financial decision-makers seeking to improve quarterly performance do not understand that poor job or project performance caused by inadequate training will reflect poorly on the company that follows that business strategy.
Some of the results of this cost cutting are frightening. The FOA recently heard about outside plant designs being outsourced to software companies overseas. One involved a design calling for underground cabling in an area where bedrock was under less than a foot of topsoil in places. The contractor that took the job without doing its own site survey discovered it had bid on a project that would require blasting to open trenches for cables. The design had to be redone in most locations to use aerial cables on existing poles.
In a large city, subcontractors for a major FTTH project dug up—and broke—numerous existing fiber optic cables. When confronted by one contractor who had installed some of the cables in the first place and was called in to fix them, they showed ignorance of the “811” call-before-you-dig program and little technical understanding of fiber installation at all.
In another city, the FOA visited a field site with a contractor installing the backbone for a FTTH project where a subcontractor was installing aerial cable. The contractor told us he intended to fire the subcontractor that day because the workers were inadequately trained and had consistently caused problems for his splicing crew because they would not leave adequate lengths of fiber at the ends for splicing, in spite of his pleas.
Many of these problems are traceable to contractors getting jobs and subcontracting the work. Some of the subcontractors were subcontracting their work to others. We were told some crews were not only untrained but were paid less than minimum wage and didn’t speak English.
The companies behind these projects seem ignorant of what needs to be done for a successful fiber project and oblivious to the consequences of their actions. They are angering the public with their disruptive construction practices and angering local governments by tearing up infrastructure and not fixing it properly, if at all. Even current owners of utility poles are objecting to being required to allow unknown contractors access to their infrastructure.
Training field techs in the proper methods of fiber optic construction is only part of the solution. The managers at the organizations who contract to have their network installed, their facilities managers, managers of contracting companies and field supervisors need training, too. Whoever supervises the design and installation of a project needs to understand the process of fiber optic installation well enough to make the important decisions that determine the success of a project. Also, the financial managers who force cost-cutting need to be taught the consequences of doing so without consideration of the effects on the project’s success.
Manufacturers and distributors also need to be concerned lest their reputations be spoiled. Twenty years ago, many manufacturers ran their own training programs for “certified installers.” The FOA was founded in reaction to the variability of these programs. The charter of the FOA was “to promote professionalism in fiber optics through education, certification and standards.” It still is.
We will continue to have problems until we teach the people making decisions on how to do it right. Expect more on this topic soon.