Building a Proper Pipeline of Talent
As far as HR issues in the CI industry are concerned, building a pipeline of talent has to be among the top priorities (and challenges). Without fresh bodies to fill the roles of outgoing professionals or to help companies looking expand, the industry could cease to exist.
That’s why groups like the Electronic Systems Professional Alliance are so important to the continued success of our industry.
ESPA Executive Director Jeff Gardner took some time to discuss the work of his organization and offer some insights as to why workforce development should be the top priority for everyone in the industry.
Technology Integrator: What does the workforce situation look like in the industry right now? What positions need to be filled?
Jeff: The entire electronic systems industry is facing a huge challenge related to hiring and retaining talented people. This includes not only the integrators in commercial and residential systems, but other low voltage disciplines like cable/satellite, security, and retail A/V. And the shortage is not limited to just technicians. As the economy has emerged from the recession, the industry has seen a lot of growth, and needs people in design, engineering, programming and project management. This has been reported in benchmark surveys conducted by both CEDIA and NSCA over the past few years. Five or six years ago, finding and retaining talent did not even appear in the top ten challenges. Now it is consistently at (or near) the top.
TI: Why is it important for everyone in the industry to make this (workforce development) a priority?
Jeff: I know of a prominent residential integrator right now, in a booming market, who has told me they are literally turning down projects because they don’t have the manpower to execute the work and still maintain their standard of quality. Their people are all working overtime, and their work/life balance is suffering. When this happens, employees start looking at other options, and losing a key person can make things even worse. The only solution is to find ways to increase the number of qualified people coming into the workforce. This requires a combination of the right training AND raising awareness among young people about the exciting career paths that exist in our industry. Today’s youth are looking for careers that allow them to have an impact, and want to be constantly challenged. But for the most part they are unaware of what our companies do. It is up to us to get this message out, as well as help schools build the right programs.
There are efforts under way to help: NSCA is launching an initiative called Ignite, which brings career awareness to a target audience of high school juniors and seniors. CABA is writing a white paper which will provide an overview of the challenge and make recommendations. CEDIA is building an apprenticeship program for veterans. CTA’s TechHome also has an initiative focusing on workforce development. And of course the ESPA program is gaining ground in the academic channel.
TI: Tell us a little bit about ESPA, its role, and the work you do.
Jeff: The Electronic Systems Professional Alliance (ESPA) was formed 10 years ago, by NSCA, CEDIA and CTA (then CEA) to provide a standardized training and certification benchmark for entry-level ESTs (Electronic Systems Technicians). ESPA is small but growing a great deal every year. After nearly 10 years with CEDIA as Director of Technical Training and more recently Director of Certification, I moved over to work exclusively on ESPA at the beginning of 2016. My work has included bringing on new training partners (schools), reaching out to military veterans, raising awareness in the industry, and launching new resources such as the Training Guide and PowerPoint presentations for classroom use. Our goal is to have ESPA programs active in every major market.
TI: What does the ESPA curriculum look like? How intensive is the program? What do your students go through to get certified?
Jeff: Since the intent was for the body of knowledge to feed all of the various sectors of the industry, only the fundamentals are covered, and the content supports both commercial and residential work. It is intended for the entry-level technician, so they can go to work and be productive from day one. Once the worker has chosen a specific area to work in, they are expected to continue their learning, and pursue more specialized professional credentials within their chosen field. Our main focus is the academic channel: high school career centers, adult education programs, and post-secondary tech schools, but it is not uncommon for an individual to study on their own and earn the certification. This gives them a valuable addition to their resume and tells the potential employer that they have are serious about a career in electronic systems. It is important to note that while some fast-track programs are based solely on the ESPA body of knowledge, most career centers and tech schools include ESPA as just one part of a much more comprehensive track of learning.
Schools like Lincoln Tech utilize a comprehensive EST curriculum from NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research). These programs are generally about a year long, and cover virtually all of the low voltage disciplines. Other programs like Madison Media Institute (MMI) and Maverick Technical Institute (MTI) utilize hybrid curriculum from ESPA, CEDIA and other sources to build programs which are more specific to the integration industry. These programs are usually about one year long. Some community colleges embed the ESPA program in technical programs focused on copper and fiber infrastructure. In all cases we encourage schools to make sure students have extensive hands-on training in cable termination and testing, use of multimeters, soldering, etc. even though the ESPA exam itself is a typical proctored, high-stakes, exam with no hands-on component.
TI: What does the ESPA certification cover?
Jeff: A fairly large group of Subject Matter Experts from all parts of the industry was assembled to create the Job Task Analysis (JTA) or Exam Blueprint. They worked hard to define the knowledge that an entry level EST should have to go to work, and made sure to keep this body of knowledge very fundamental. The five domains in the JTA are: Electrical and Electronic Basics, Construction Methods and Materials, Tools (including documents), Wiring, and Jobsite Safety/Codes/Standards. The body of knowledge is at an introductory level and not specific to any one area of low voltage work.
TI: What kind of impact do you think ESPA has had on the industry?
Jeff: Our numbers have doubled each of the past two years, but we would like to see them grow ten-fold by 2020. At that point the impact will be felt by employers all over the country. When a school becomes an Authorized Training Partner, the curriculum and classroom resources are only part of their partner benefits. ESPA provides outreach to area employers by the hundreds, letting them know where they can go to find qualified entry-level ESTs. This improves their placement numbers. For post-secondary schools, we do a similar outreach to high schools in their area, raising awareness about the electronic systems career paths, and how to prepare for them, driving higher admissions.
TI: How can people get involved with the work you do, if they’re interested in helping?
Jeff: This is no doubt the most important part of my message to the industry! We know there are schools in every area which have programs which could become more practical (and successful) by including ESPA. There are “legacy” electronics programs in high school career centers which can be made instantly more relevant by teaching young people what they need to go right to work as an EST.
When the ESPA content is paired with CompTIA A+ or Net+, that student now has the jobsite skills AND the computer/networking competencies that will make them extremely valuable in the workplace. Tech schools and community colleges can easily drop in the ESPA “module” to make their graduates more qualified for immediate employment. The key to getting these schools on board is the integrator right down the street, who has job openings and can explain this need to the decision makers at the school. Schools want to teach what is needed to fill real jobs in the real world. But many times they are not aware of what training these jobs call for. The integrator is the one that can make that connection.
Letting us know about a school, especially with a specific contact to reach out to, is great. But even better is when the company engages the school directly. This can include talking to classes about what the company does, showing “glamour shots” of projects, serving on the advisory board, etc. The big advantage to direct engagement is pretty simple. The employer gets to identify the students who demonstrate a real interest in a career, as well as the soft skills necessary for success. In other words, getting the “pick of the litter” when they finish their schooling.
To summarize, the best way to drive ESPA’s growth, and build that robust workforce we so badly need, is for integrators to identify and engage the schools in their area who have the ability to offer the right training and certification. We will help them fully understand our program, what resources they need, what hands-on training is needed, and how they can best prepare people to work in the electronic systems industry. This is the call to action! Identify and engage the schools, and we will work to get a program in place that everyone will benefit from! TI