Help wanted

Tim Kridel explores how trends such as AV-IT convergence and a skills shortage are creating challenges and opportunities.

Call it the gig economy. Between the gigabits of AV-IT convergence and a skills shortage that’s drivingmany of the skilled into freelance gigs, the pro AV labour market is a lot different than it was just a few years ago.

The AV-IT convergence trend has been playing out for well over a decade, of course. It’s why many AV pros now have CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) or MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert) alongside CTS, CTS-D or CTS-I in their email signature.

But more recently, convergence is changing the mix of job categories, according to AVIXA’s 2018 Macro-Economic Trends Analysis: Pro-AV Channel Employment Report, published in August. 

Past reports focused on AV equipment technicians (AVET), but the 2018 report also look sat the additional types integrators are hiring.

“One of the big findings is yes, that traditional [AVET] role is still a big part of the mix: a third or so of the employment base that’s in the job postings,” says Sean Wargo, AVIXA senior director of market intelligence.

“But there’s another one that’s much more IT: computer user support specialist. That’s almost equivalent now to AVET. Integrators are having to bring in a new set of talent to handle all things IP.”

"We see a big knowledge and skills gap between the AV and IT worlds." - Justin Kennington, SDVoE Alliance

The amount of computer user support specialists that an AV firm hires affects the size of its payroll and potentially its profit margin.

“These individuals tend to get paid at a higher rate, on average, than an AVET,” Wargo says.

AVIXA has been analysing the labour market every two years but is now going annually due to market dynamics.

Project management and finance are two other growth categories, as is engineering. Adding engineers is one way that integrating can better compete against both AV and IT firms.

“You’re seeing an average annual growth rate in those salaries around 4% versus more of a 2% in a lot of the other positions,” Wargo says.“

That says they’re looking for that core muscle to help them differentiate themselves: really push the boundaries of the solution and innovate.”

Jumping ship? 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some AV and IT pros, this industry cross-pollination makes the grass look greener on the other side.

One example is SDVoE Academy, a new online school from the Software Defined Video over Ethernet (SDVoE) Alliance.

Its coursework focuses on the namesake technology for AV-over-IP applications, and it’s attracting both AV and IT folks interested in joining their ranks.

“We see a mix of those two types,” says Justin Kennington, SDVoE Alliance president.

“We see a big knowledge and skills gap between the AV and IT worlds. Our mission in education is not to make IT directors out of AV guys, or vice-versa, but to teach AV guys and IT guys enough about the other one’s world that they can communicate better.

“We’re trying to give some IT-focused education with an AV audience in mind. We’re the perfect launching pad for someone interested in that path: to learn about this other world in a language that they already speak.”

But others say that convergence hasn’t completely blurred the line.

“The trend would suggest that there are people within IT who are now viewing the AV industry as a career of choice,” says Graeme Massey, managing director of JacobsMassey, an AV recruiter.

“I still say that overwhelmingly AV remains in its own world. The AV-IT convergence we’ve seen is whereby an AV department may now fall under the direction of the IT department.”

For example, Massey’s firm sometimes gets inquiries from enterprises IT departments seeking AV help.

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“Is there a convergence where IT engineers are taking on AV duties? I haven’t seen it,” Massey says.

“The entities are still quite separate when it comes to actual job function.”

“We need to find more resources with strong network management skills in digital audio (Dante, AVB, etc.), in real-time IT, as well as signal management.” - Régis Cazin, Active Audio and APG

“The entities are still quite separate when it comes to actual job function.”

Regardless of who reports to whom, it’s clear that IT skills are now are key part of the AV domain.“

For those like us who are involved in audio, the amount of work directly linked to IT ever increasing,” says Régis Cazin, CEO of Active Audio and APG.

“We need to find more resources with strong network management skills in digital audio (Dante, AVB, etc.), in real-time IT, as well as signal management.

“But we also need people that are experts in audio and acoustics. So we have to ask ourselves whether it makes more sense to train IT specialists to our audio business, or if we need to recruit young audio/acoustics engineers that are prepared to get involved in IT technologies.

One of the strengths of our business is that we manage to find people who are truly passionate about audio, so we find it fairly easy to find the talents that we are looking for.”

Regardless of whether they come from IT, when people decide to start a career in AV, their employers

must find ways to help new hires get AV skills quickly so they can start driving revenue.
“The most efficient way, which is also the least expensive and the one that makes most sense in the long run, is to train new people using apprenticeship or via a qualification course,” Cazin says. “There has been a real evolution in France in this area.

“A majority of engineering and technician schools are now offering flexible training to their students where they can spend an equal amount of time working in a company and continuing their scholar training. It takes time, and patience is of the essence, but it is definitely an excellent way for companies to attract and retain talents.”

SDVoE Academy also seeks to help — including helping integrators get their veterans trained on IT.

“Whether it’s a young new hire or somebody who’s been designing standalone switch matrix systems for 40 years, there are new concepts that they need to be aware of,” Kennington says.

While IT skills are in high demand, some newer types aren’t, such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“Our observations so far is that the ‘mega trends’ skills in AR, VR and AI are not yet in high demand,” says Jenny Hicks, Midwich head of technology.

“These skills exist already in content-creation companies, both in graphics design agencies and film production specialists.”

For now at least, integrators can use partnerships to add AR, VR and AI skills, just as some do with content creation for their digital signage clients. 

“AV integrators seem happy in the most to outsource the design work and take the content creators’ guidance on suitable hardware solutions,” Hicks says about AR and VR.“

Likewise, with AI, we regularly see integrators working with specialist software providers and developers.”

"We need to find more resources with strong network management skills in digital audio (Dante, AVB), in real-time IT, as well as signal management" - Régis Cazin

Skills around live streaming also are in high demand. One reason is because event organisers see it as a way to widen the audience for lectures, product launches and the like.

“Venues are starting to realise that it’s like a ticket: ‘I can actually make some money on it,’” Massey says.

Go solo? You’re not alone

The skills shortage also is prompting more and more AV pros to work on a freelance or contract basis.

That’s been common in the live events space for years —but now even more so.

“That’s our biggest growth area,” Massey says.

The contract model is expanding into other AV segments, too.

AVIXA hasn’t tried to quantify the freelancer ranks, but Wargo isn’t surprised that they’re growing.

“When you have a labour shortage, companies have to take what they can get, so they’ll sometimes hire freelancers and part timers,” he says.

“That’s a theme people have talked about in the overall economy: shifting toward the gig economy, project-based assignments.”

SDVoE Academy enrollment information backs up this assessment.

“There’s a surprising number of folks listed as freelance or a company they’d set up as a sole proprietor for themselves,” Kennington says.

That’s not surprising. Unlike an AV firm, which can have experts in AV and others in IT, a one-man band has to be a Jack or Jill of all trades.

SDVoE Academy is an opportunity for freelancers to broaden their skill sets — and thus their freelance opportunities.

At AV firms, someone has to talk the talk before the pros can walk the walk. That’s why SDVoE Academy offers sales training, such as how to educate potential customers about the benefits of having AV and IT share a network.

“I don’t think I’ve seen any other trade organisations or technology alliances with any kind of focus on sales training,” Kennington says. “That’s something unique to us. Just like the rest, they need to be up to speed on the technology they’re trying to explain to people.”

Besides using freelancers, AV firms also can turn to partners for skills they can’t find or don’t want to put on the payroll. “Managed services are driving demand for first and second line support skills,” says Midwich’s Hicks.“

"Our observations so far are that the 'mega trends' skills in AR, VR and AI are not yet in high demand." - Henny Hicks, Midwich

This can be costly for businesses to implement as staff need high knowledge at a product and brand level covering installation, set up and configuration through to ongoing use.“

At Midwich, we created a service and support team whose help desk, technical support services, extended warranties and support contracts can be resold by resellers. We have recruited staff who have practical experience of installing, using and delivering training on technical video solutions. 

They provide invaluable resource for integrators testing the waters with managed services without risk and high investment.

The service team is called MiSupport and has seen exponential success since launching earlier this year.”

More M&A?

Talented people are key to an AV firm’s ability to grow. That goes without saying, but it’s taken on new urgency.

“Business is great, but how do you find the right people?” Wargo says. “That’s the consistent question.”

Companies that struggle to attract and retain talent, especially in emerging technology areas, face the prospect of slower growth.

“We have noticed that for our distributors, integrators or rental staging partners in France, there is a real difference in terms of company development for those who manage to get into the IT world,” says Active Audio/APG’s Cazin.

“Those who are only involved in audio and acoustics without integrating internal IT competencies — whether on the field (systems tweaks, installation) or from a sales perspective (with the outreach to pure IT companies that externalise the audio part)  are experiencing a slower development compared to those who are making an effort to integrate this new technological aspect.”

Cazin believes this trend could result in more mergers and acquisitions. “This evolution will most likely bring consolidation,” Cazin says.“Instead of going out there to recruit competencies, some companies are so far behind that it will make more sense for them to take over a smaller structure that already has the expertise in this field.”

The bottom line is that you’ve got skills in AV, IT or both, you’ve got no shortage of opportunities — staff and freelance.

“The candidate is king at the moment,” Massey says. “He or she has the pick of the bunch. If we could fill every freelance booking or [permanent] job, I’d be in a bigger office.”

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