The training has left the station

On RadioINSIGHT this week, veteran US Engineer Chris Tarr has a good old lash-out at the state of engineering skill in our industry. John Maizels agrees with his views.

More than just opining the state of skill, Chris Tarr is pointing out the obvious:  we have a desperate skill shortage. 

Chris is looking at the train that’s charging towards the radio industry, the train which represents the day when nobody will know how to turn on the lights, let alone fix them.  The train that has nobody on it who is being… well trained in the finer points of broadcast engineering.
Lack of skills in engineering is not a new problem.  Don’t get me wrong; every day I work with exceptional people in the industry who have amazing skills, and for whom the trip to work in is a joy.  They work in radio because they want to, and because it’s still exciting.   And those people keep us on air.
But think back – if you’re of an age, you’ll recall the days of Engineering as a major department in any station.  When I was a lad, my first job was in a major metro station which had a Chief, a deputy chief, a Senior Tech, two techs and a junior.  I was the junior.   Everyone in the station had a BOCP or was on the track to get one.  Technical capability was taken seriously.   My next job in radio was at a country station in a town of 10,000 people.   The engineering department had a Chief (who had built most of the gear), a tech and a junior.  Such was the way in those days.  Three technologists in a station that only had four jocks.   I was the junior jock (and, famously, I was fired for pissing off the Chief Engineer.  Now I are one.).
Spool forward to today, and we have networks where a handful of techs support two, three, eight or maybe 80 stations.  Tarr works in a pond rather bigger than ours, where clearly the shortage of skill is even more dire.  He talks about stations off the air for a whole day, or operating at 20% power for weeks.  Would that ever happen here, in Australia.   Would it?
The thing is that today there’s no formal training available even if you want it.  No qualifications to get.  No certifications on offer.  No licensing needed to operate.  So no incentive to put yourself through the pain of learning.  It suited the industry to allow decay in the education systems which kept a supply of qualified engineers flowing, and now – with the exception of a few islands of internally-driven training – the flow has stopped.  We’ve lost the culture that demanded solid understanding of our craft.
And whose fault is this?  
 Ultimately it goes to those people who make the business decisions on how many staff they need.  It’s all about risk, and if a business owner thinks that the bottom-line reward is more important than the business risk, and they’re prepared to take the risk of no techs, then they’ve made a conscious decision.   It might not be the world’s best long-term decision, but they see it as valid.   Until, of course, there’s nobody left who knows how to turn on the lights and then it looks more like folly.
Broadcasting is a technology business.   In another story in these pages, James Cridland asserts that AM and FM aren’t dead yet.   Assuming he’s right (and hey – I trust James!) then there better be someone around who understands whether mixed polarisation is better than a 4CX1000 run in class A.   Or why pin 1 of an XLR is  important for phantom power whether the load is bridged or not.   Or what you need to derive an AES mix-minus for a hybrid, whether it’s connected to VoIP with PoE or not.
The tech you want on hand to keep you out of trouble is the person who understands that last paragraph.  Who internalises every piece of theory that I just conflated, and who knows why it’s complete bilge.   Yet the uncomfortable truth is that the community of people who have that skill at their fingertips has dwindled, continues to dwindle, and maybe we’re not so far from the day when the train hits us and the lights do go out.
To be fair, it’s not just radio; the TV and video production industry is now populated with practitioners whose theoretical knowledge is wafer-thin, and whose response is pavlovian:  the bell rings and they salivate, but when the buzzer goes off they have no training that tells them what to do.  
It’s a handful of old-pharts that’s keeping the industry afloat, and that can’t last for ever.   Tarr is right about that.  Dammit, the old-pharts are desperate to pass on their skills.   But to whom?
I’ll go to my grave asserting that a portable industry certification scheme is one way to encourage learning, skilling, and better quality within the ranks of technologists.  But that’s not happening this week.
What is happening next week is Technorama, where community broadcasting technologists get together for a weekend of technology swap, a bit of training, a lot of community building, and a fair amount of chin-wagging.   Technorama isn’t the replacement for a proper education system, but it’s at least a piece of the puzzle. 
In fact, community radio stations might be the last true learning sandbox in this country.  So here’s what you should do.  If you’re a station manager – commercial or community – send your techs to Technorama over the 22-24 July weekend.  It’s not too late to register: has the program and all the details, and it will cost you a pittance.  It’s the cheapest education and hug you can give them this year.
Get on board.  If you’re a community station, Technorama  is how you train your people.  Send them.   If you’re a commercial station, this is where you might spot some new talent.   Meet them.   And either way there’s a killer program including our special guest of honour, James Cridland – a closet tech in his own right.
Skilling is a shared responsibility, and when the lights go out it’s too late.
Apparently the training has left the station – but it’s still not too late to get it back.

Technorama registration here

John Maizels has spent the last 50 years dabbling in IT and broadcast engineering; radio then television. 

These days he is a technology evangelist who recognises Ohm as a god, helps TV students to understand the difference between SDI and a sprocket, and believes that every engineer should be forced to feel the pain that they inflict on their customers.   He still enjoys doing the occasional VO and is passionate about radio and training.  

He is a Fellow of the SMPTE, and volunteer President of Technorama Inc, so at least the money is where the mouth is.

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