Electrical contracting firms can build their datacom business through partnerships with V/D/V firms and training programs
The voice/data/video (V/D/V) industry exploded with the growth of the dot-com companies in the late '90s but slowed down once the market became saturated. Electrical contracting firms, however, are still training their electricians as installers, opening up new divisions, and partnering with V/D/V firms to edge their way into this business and capture a share of this market.
Rather than hiring separate firms to perform electrical and datacom work, clients are now searching for one contractor that can provide a one-stop solution on construction projects, says Ken Garthe, education director for the St. Louis chapter of Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC).
“Some of our electrical contractors have been offered a contract to do the low-voltage wiring, but they had to turn it down because they didn't have the training,” Garthe says. “Now we're working on training our firms so they can also include V/D/V work in their bids.”
Garthe, who has been working in the electrical trade since 1957, says he served as a journeyman electrician for decades, but never learned how to install datacom wiring. While structured wiring and fiber optics may be a new technology to veteran electricians, today's electrical students have the opportunity to learn about Cat. 5 and fiber-optic wiring through their apprenticeship classes and other specialized V/D/V training programs. These students often work for electrical contracting or V/D/V firms during their apprenticeship, and once they graduate from the program, they are often hired as full-time employees by these companies. Other firms are taking a different approach to building their datacom businesses by subcontracting work to experienced telecom technicians and installers or acquiring V/D/V firms. This article will explore three ways of recruiting a qualified V/D/V workforce and offer tips on what to look for in a V/D/V installer.
Training electricians as V/D/V installers. Electrical contracting firms are faced with the challenge of finding qualified installers when launching a new datacom division. While their electricians may be experienced in traditional electrical work, they may not be familiar with how to handle and install datacom wiring and equipment. To satisfy contractors' demand for a qualified workforce, the St. Louis chapter of the IEC recently launched a V/D/V training program. The chapter set up the curriculum a year ago through the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Apprentice Training.
About 10 students are currently enrolled in a two-year course to learn how to install fiber optic cable, Cat. 5 wiring, and Cat. 6 wiring. If the students elect to continue their training for an additional year, they can pursue certification as a technician, which will allow them to do design work. As part of the weekly four-hour class, a certified instructor not only teaches them about V/D/V systems in the classroom, but also gives them the opportunity to practice what they have learned in a laboratory setting.
While many of the students are enrolled in either the electrical or the V/D/V training classes, one of the students opted to attend both at the same time. Garthe says the additional training will help the apprentice expand his knowledge base, increase his job opportunities, and ultimately make him a better employee. Some of the other students are also currently working as electricians, and when they graduate from the program, they will be able to perform both electrical and V/D/V work.
“They feel that their possibilities are enhanced because they can not only do the electrical wiring, but the voice/data as well,” Garthe says.
Similar to the IEC apprenticeship program, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also offers a four-year telecommunications/V/D/V apprenticeship at the IBEW Local Union 164 training facility in New Jersey. As part of the apprenticeship program, the students work alongside experienced technicians during the day and take classes at night. Aspiring V/D/V installers can also attend training classes nationwide through the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee's Installer Technician training program, which is sponsored by the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association. Local chapters across the country use this Department of Labor-recognized training program to train a skilled V/D/V workforce through a three-year program that combines on-the-job training with classroom education.
Dennis Gralike, training director for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in St. Louis, says about 75 students are currently enrolled in the V/D/V training program, and more than 500 are currently working as technicians within the telecommunications industry. Once the students graduate from the apprenticeship program, they can continue their education by attending advanced training courses. The classes are also open to experienced V/D/V professionals and electricians who want to stay up-to-date on the latest technology in the industry. As more electricians are beginning to perform low-voltage installations in the field, they're turning to training centers to prepare themselves for future opportunities in the market, which could be on its way up, Gralike says.
“We've been waiting for the market to explode, but it has remained constant and steady,” Gralike says. “We think that in the next two or three years, we will see tremendous growth, and we are very well prepared to meet those challenges.”
Hiring telecom specialists. While more electricians are starting to get into this market, a majority of the installers are trained specifically in datacom installation and design, says Richard Dunfee, training program manager for BICSI.
“There has been a tendency to separate the electrical work from V/D/V applications because it's a separate business and is run and estimated a different way,” Dunfee says. “Electricians have a very good ability to understand electronics, but if they don't have much experience and plan to pull telecommunications cabling like they pull electrical wiring, they're going to end up with a disaster.”
Dunfee says the majority of the students in BICSI's training programs are not electricians, but rather telecom specialists for governmental or contractor firms. About 42% of these students work directly for electrical contracting firms in their datacom divisions or serve as contract employees.
To receive certification and obtain training in installing V/D/V systems, these students attend BICSI's three levels of 40-hour courses. Installer Level 1 focuses on the basic tasks of an installer, such as how to use a meter, pull a cable properly, and follow safety procedures. Students must complete two years of experience in telecommunications cabling before going on to Level 2, where they will learn how to terminate cabling and perform certification testing of both copper and fiber systems. After verifying that they've worked in the field for five years, they can move on to the Technician Level, in which they'll learn about site surveys, walkthroughs, how to interact with the customer, and how to use test equipment to troubleshoot a system. The top level of BICSI's training program — Registered Communications Distribution Designer — requires two years of experience in the telecom design field.
Some of the firms send only one or two employees through the BICSI training course, and then ask these students to come back to the office and train the rest of the staff. Dunfee says the BICSI training program uses a streamlined and very structured approach, and it's more beneficial for as many of the employees as possible to go through the program.
“I would rather have everyone on the same page and introduced to the same material,” Dunfee says. “Second-hand knowledge can be very dangerous because they may not remember everything. If they can't go through a certification program, the training should be structured through an approved Bureau of Apprenticeship Training program.”
Teaming up with a V/D/V firm. Electrical contracting firms are not only recruiting V/D/V installers and technicians through apprenticeship and training programs, they're also partnering with V/D/V businesses. By developing an alliance with a V/D/V firm, an electrical contractor can successfully bid on electrical and datacom projects in the construction industry.
“Electrical contractors want to make some money off the V/D/V business, but they may not know enough about it,” Dunfee says. “At the same time, V/D/V firms want to align themselves with electrical firms because they're the ones that are awarded contracts. There's a double benefit in these alliances.”
Electrical firms may develop a formal agreement to work with certain V/D/V firms on larger construction projects. Other companies, like St. Louis-based Guarantee Electrical Co., have acquired V/D/V firms to expand their scope of services. Guarantee Electrical launched its own datacom division a few years ago, and when it didn't have the manpower to complete the V/D/V projects, it subcontracted the work to TEL-Vi Communications, a Fenton, Mo.-based provider of V/D/V network installation services. In February of this year, Guarantee Electrical acquired the V/D/V firm to streamline the construction process for its customers. By making TEL-Vi a division of the electrical contracting firm, Guarantee Electrical immediately acquired a team of experienced V/D/V veterans without dealing with the growing pains of building a team of specialized workers from the ground up.
“We have a skilled workforce of specialists that have been with the company for 20 or 25 years,” says Richard Potts, vice president of TEL-Vi. “That's very difficult to build on your own. You can't just build a 40-person workforce overnight that knows what they're doing.”
TEL-Vi's communications specialists perform datacom work for not only Guarantee Electrical's clients, but also for other smaller electrical contracting firms as well. Rather than having electricians do both electrical and datacom work, the divisions are kept separate. While the electricians run all the conduit and the cable tray, the datacom specialists install the V/D/V systems.
“With the way that telecommunications is going today, it's become such a highly specialized field,” Potts says. “It's very difficult to expect someone to do high-voltage work one day and walk in the next day and install a sophisticated card reader system.”
Whether electrical contracting firms decide to build their datacom businesses through hiring telecom specialists or training their own electricians, they can take advantage of the growing opportunities in the V/D/V industry.
“I haven't seen any big voice and data projects lately, but we're very busy right now and see a lot of good opportunities coming up,” Potts says. “There are a lot of jobs out there, but you have to work harder to get them because there's more competition.”
Sidebar: What to Look for in a V/D/V Installer
While some of the larger electrical contracting firms may be able to acquire V/D/V companies or send their electricians to training classes, others will most likely subcontract out the datacom work to specialty firms. Here's what you should look for when trying to align yourself with a qualified V/D/V installer:
A background in electrical, electronics, or construction
The ability to run a job with multiple systems
Certification through a BICSI training program or an industry-approved apprenticeship program
A list of customers that are satisfied with the installer's work
A certain amount of experience in the V/D/V industry