Recruiting, training and retaining in AV

Tim Kridel explores how pro AV is attracting talent and then training it, and finds one overriding question: What can AV learn from IT?

Pro AV is a booming market, with Europe’s share on track to have a compound annual growth rate of 4% through 2022, according to InfoComm International’s “2017 AV Industry Outlook and Trends Analysis.” For integrators, vendors and other AV firms, that growth creates a challenge: finding and training enough people to ensure their share of the European market’s projected additional $10 billion (approximately €8.5 billion) in revenue.

Part of the challenge is that unlike a lot of other booming professions, such as IT or healthcare, pro AV flies under the radar when people are considering their career options. And when they do decide to become AV pros, there’s also no clear-cut or must-take path in university or trade schools.

“I think that generally people stumble into AV, and a lot of people do it to ‘try their hand and turn a few quid,’” says Peter Hunt, Hewshott group CEO. “But ultimately that doesn’t help promote the industry at a credible level it deserves.” He adds: “There is no doubt that InfoComm is seeking to push the CTS certification hard, and rightly so. However, it would gain a wider audience if it could be linked to, or form a part of, a relevant tertiary qualification.”
“Companies like us can’t simply rely on systematically overrated industry buzz like AV-IT convergence washing up very little sustainable resources on the shores of pro AV.”

The convergence trend helps by introducing IT pros to AV. David Willie, for example, was a university AV-IT manager when his school hired Saville Audio Visual. Now he’s the firm’s head of communication and collaboration technologies. “I think what makes the AV industry so interesting is the diversity of people who work within it and the diversity of reasons they joined the industry,” Willie says.

Apprenticeships and internships

Some firms are using internships and apprenticeships to grow talent. One example is Bastien Lemaire, a French engineering student who’s spending three months in Midwich’s UK office. “His apprenticeship is run by Manganelli Technology, a reseller client of our French business, Sidev,” says Jon Dew-Stanley, Midwich Technical director. “This practical programme he is undertaking requires Bastien to spend three months learning a broad range of engineering topics. Bastien approached our group to see if we could help to provide an internship.”

“We are exposing him to an array of technical products including digital signage, collaboration, video wall processing and connectivity and control. We have aligned Bastien to a senior technical specialist in our Berkshire office and created a programme that permits him to learn about our vendors’ products and technologies while working with our reseller and integration clients to support the implementation of them.”
 Backview of graduates wearing gowns and hats
Another example is The Lang Academy, which was founded in 2010 and provides training and certification for vendors such as Barco and Panasonic. “Building a proactive youth development strategy became key for Lang,” says Markus Ries, director. “Establishing close cooperation with local secondary schools and universities all over Europe is an important part of that programme. Companies like us can’t simply rely on systematically overrated industry buzz like AV-IT convergence washing up very little sustainable resources on the shores of pro AV.”

What does CTS stand for?

Regardless of how or why people join pro AV’s ranks, vendor and InfoComm accreditation is a rite of passage. One reason is because it helps with climbing the ladder. “Having a recognised qualification in the form of a CTS demonstrates the ability to assimilate technical AV information at an academic level,” says Graeme Massey, JacobsMassey managing director. “Similarly it shows a personal commitment to investing in your career.”

Midwich sees value in both AV and IT accreditation. “My team are all currently in the process of completing their CTS accreditation,” Dew-Stanley says. “It is my desire that our team should be independently qualified by appropriate industry bodies to ensure we can provide value to our clients and vendors. We believe this is a first for distribution. With the convergence of IT and AV well established, we are also investing in professional network training for relevant staff including Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).”

Others say CTS currently doesn’t have as much clout as it could or should when it comes to winning projects. “It’s not in demand universally across the world, and most integrators we work with see it as an investment that’s not going to add anything to their ability,” says Hewshott’s Hunt. “The vast majority of projects that are led by consultants hand-pick the integrators that compete for the work and that’s usually based on reputation, staff and previous experience. Having CTS isn’t a differentiator at the moment, but one day I hope it, or a derivative of it, will be.”

This challenge extends to clients, too. That could be because AV historically has been a sort of black art, known only to its practitioners. By comparison, most clients are familiar with IT, including its accreditations. “I’m not sure CTS-qualified organisations are high on the initial priority list when clients are looking for potential suppliers,” says Saville’s Willie. “I think it should be, but I don’t think it’s widely known about by some decision-makers. Buyers of AV technology vary widely, and they are not necessarily AV professionals themselves.

“I think there are a number of integrators such as ourselves that regularly showcase our accreditation and talk about the level of training undertaken to become qualified. I think only with integrators and the wider industry promoting these professional qualifications will it progress.”

Others say geography is a factor. “The value of pro AV accreditations like CTS varies heavily from region to region, according to the relation of general education systems and vocational trainings to the relevant labour markets,” says Lang’s Ries. “In countries like Germany, where we have a well-developed infrastructure of dedicated pro AV apprenticeships run by the chamber of industry and commerce, and the various media technology degree programs of the universities of applied sciences, an accreditation like CTS is almost meaningless. [But] for the US market, CTS is probably much needed.”

Refining and leveraging CTS

More than 11,000 people currently are CTS holders, an increase of about 1,000 over the past two years. More than 2,000 of them have a CTS-D or CTS-I. Those numbers indicate that a lot of AV pros continue to see value in the accreditation. And as the CTS ranks grow, so should consultant and client awareness simply because there are more people playing up their accreditation in tenders. 

Meanwhile, InfoComm continues to refine the CTS program to make it more valuable for individuals and firms alike. For example, meetings two years ago with integrators lead to the creation of micro-credentialing. “Their CTS-Is are really multitasked,” says Amanda Beckner, InfoComm vice president of learning. “They’re used for commissioning systems and business development, troubleshooting and training new people. How can InfoComm help free them up when it comes to onboarding new people? 

“That’s how we got to the micro-credential product. So some of the products outside of CTS prep are because of integrator business needs.” Vendors also can leverage CTS both to encourage participation in their training programs and to reduce the cost of creating them. “Vendors can get our renewal units (RUs) to offer any CTS-D or -I student in their classroom as another way to [get] them to come invest in their professional development,” says Adrienne Knick, director of certification. “CTS holders need to renew every three years, and they need 30 RUs to do that. So it helps to have a lot of vendors in the marketplace to choose from. 

Another example is how vendors such as Legrand license InfoComm curriculum. “As a manufacturer, you know you’re going to have to teach some fundamentals about the basis of that technology in order to talk about what makes you different in the marketplace,” Knick says. “When you’re looking at your time investment to put that program together, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can contract with InfoComm to get some of our content to start from and create a derivative of that.” 
Young woman with tablet and hard hat
Some AV pros would like to see vendors collaborate with one another. “I’d love to see the main audio DSP manufacturers come up with a course that covers audio within the DSP domain, independent of their product,” says Hewshott’s Hunt. “All of them can run it (for the same fee), but with the right policing, it would provide a solid grounding for someone to go onto more specialist training, perhaps with a manufacturer of their choice. The same would apply to a number of similar areas.”

Hunt sees a role for InfoComm, too. “I believe that most of the training should be vendor-led, but it should be regulated,” he says. “If I was to go to one company for a course, I would want to be confident that one of my colleagues in a different part of the world attended the same course with a different vendor and came out of it with the same knowledge. “This is a model that could also be strapped into some of the existing coursework undertaken by tertiary colleges and universities. InfoComm would achieve their prominence by association and certification, thereby raising the profile and driving standards.”

Who really needs a CCNA or MCSE? 

The steady convergence of AV and IT affects training and certification. For example, as IT certifications such as CCNA and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) are increasingly valuable not just for working for projects where AV runs over IT networks. They’re also helpful for winning those projects in the first place because IT departments often are in charge of AV. 
“More and more recruitment now is focused on attracting people with Microsoft and Cisco qualifications than in some cases formal university degrees.”

This trend begs questions such as whether IT certifications are just as important as AV ones, and whether AV certifications need more of an IT focus. The definitive answer to both is, it depends. For example, most AV pros would agree that today, it’s important to know how to put AV devices on an IT network in a way that doesn’t compromise security and performance. But the ability to do that doesn’t require knowing how to design an enterprise-grade LAN from scratch. So this is an example of how InfoComm bases its exams on what integrators and others say they do on a daily basis. And at least for now, the feedback—largely via the Job Task Analysis initiative—is that most AV pros don’t need IT certifications such as CCNA.

“The CTS today obviously looks different than it did five or 10 years ago,” says Brad Grimes, InfoComm director of communications. “There is IT and networking information in there. It’s not Cisco-certification-level IT, but it’s what AV professionals tell us they need to know about IT in order to do their jobs.”

When it comes to accreditation, one fundamental difference between AV and IT is that although AV has its share of major vendors, none dominate the industry the way that Cisco and Microsoft do IT. “[Their] insistence that individuals and resellers need to undertake formal qualification training to gain access to their portfolio has been the foundation of formalising/accrediting the [IT] industry,” says Saville’s Willie. “More and more recruitment now is focused on attracting people with Microsoft and Cisco qualifications than in some cases formal university degrees.” 

For now, and probably a long time to come, AV and IT certifications will remain complimentary rather than competitive. “CCNA is great if you need to know about Cisco, how it works, how to manage a Cisco infrastructure,” says Midwich’s Dew-Stanley. “However, it’s only one part to a system. Knowing AV and networking is certainly invaluable. I expect in time more IT specialists may learn AV, just as AV need to learn IT and networking.”

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