On-The-Job Training In The Datacom Industry

On-the-job training is a tough task. If you don't do it well, you'll end up paying for it through lost productivity, damaged equipment, and redone installations. Although this author is generally not a fan of on-the-job training (OJT) for technical work in the datacom industry, he finds it a necessary supplement to other types of training. However, it's usually not sufficient as a stand-alone method.

On-the-job training is a tough task. If you don't do it well, you'll end up paying for it through lost productivity, damaged equipment, and redone installations.

Although this author is generally not a fan of on-the-job training (OJT) for technical work in the datacom industry, he finds it a necessary supplement to other types of training. However, it's usually not sufficient as a stand-alone method. Datacom OJT is not always the best idea, but most employers still do it.

So why is there so much OJT in the datacom business arena today? When you need an installer and don't have time to wait for an employee to go to school, it's difficult to find someone who's already trained. That said, if you're going to implement an OJT program, make sure you do it right. This means you must not only cover the important information, but also effectively teach it.

What to teach. The most important technical concepts you'll have to convey to your trainees include:

Basic cabling techniques: How to secure cables, pull cables through raceways and trays, install fire-stopping, protect cables, locate outlets, install boxes, etc. If your trainees already know power wiring, you can skip these issues. If not, you have a long way to go. If they don't know how to install cable, they're going to make many mistakes. This is understandable. Power-trained installers or not, all trainees must become familiar with Art. 800 of the National Electrical Code.

Basic termination techniques: Punching-down conductors, installing modular connectors, pairing of conductors under EIA/TIA 568 and other standards, staying within the 13mm untwisting limit, leaving extra cable at termination points, etc.

Cable and conductor identification: Explaining the importance of identification and your company's specific marking schemes.

Testing: Wire mapping, attenuation, and crosstalk are just the beginning. Your trainees must also know what a decibel is and how decibel measurements work. They need to understand crosstalk, inductance, capacitance, and NVP. Power sum, ACR, and other concepts are also important.

Documentation: Trainees must understand the importance of documentation as well as your specific methods.

The difference between signal loss and signal degradation: Attenuation (loss of signal) and signal distortion are very different, even though both will crash a network. Your students must understand why a distortion in the network's square-wave pulses will shut it down, even though plenty of signal is getting from Point A to Point B.

What categories and levels are: How are they changing, and how do you define them? What's the difference? What kind of systems do you use? Remember, just using Cat. 5 cable does not give you a Cat. 5 system; you must use Cat. 5 components.

Basic networking: Why do we use networks? What are topologies and the Ethernet? Explain how signals transfer from one computer to another. What's a "server"?

Basic computer communications: Your trainee should understand what binary code is, and why we use it. He or she must also know what an NIC card is and how to install one.

Basic software: How does it work, and how do you use it?

Basic hardware: The trainee must know how to deal with a punch-down block, patch panel, and main cross-connect.

Working in a telephone closet: The new installer must gain familiarity with telephone closets, know how to deal with cramped conditions, and be able to work in a combined power/telephone closet without getting hurt.

Cat. 5 cabling: What's the 25-lb tension limit? Why does too much tension untwist the cables? Why does this untwisting alter the signal transmission characteristics?

EIA/TIA 568 specifications: What are the attenuation and cross-talk limits? What are the cable types, pin usage, and color codes? What are horizontal and vertical cabling backbones? How much separation do you need from power conductors, and what are minimum bending radii?

Basic digital telephony: What are ISDN, ADSL, and T1 telephone lines? What are points of demarcation and protectors? What's the difference between point-to-point lines and switched service lines?

Basic Internet: What is it, how do we connect to it, and why does it matter? You might also want to explain how an Intranet works.

What's expensive, and what's not: What is a $5 mistake, and what is a $5000 mistake? Remember: Your trainee is worried about burning up something very expensive.

What belongs to the customer, and what belongs to the contractor: Who paid for what, and who's responsible for what?

Fiber optics: If you do optical fiber work, you must either contract it out or do specific training. We're not covering optical training in this article. Although optical technology is not especially difficult, it is new and different.

How to do it. You can see from the above list there's a tremendous amount of information to cover. Once you find a competent teacher, you must transfer the information to the students. Assembling information is the easy part; transferring it is much more difficult.

If you're involved in training, you're taking on an important job. Here are some ideas that may assist you.

Repetition: Don't think you can teach something only once and all students will retain the information. This seldom happens. You should repeat every main point several times; the more the better.

Teaching over time: Go over every point on several different occasions at least several days apart.

Ask questions: Have your students answer your questions. This is how you can be sure they've retained what you've taught them. Make sure you ask questions several days after you taught the information. Verify the student has really understood the lesson and can repeat the information.

They won't get it the first time: Don't get frustrated with your students; there are lots of facts they won't pick up until you repeat them. If you find it frustrating, you're probably rushing the training. If you rush it, you'll do a poor job and possibly drive trainees away.

Make sure the trainee understands why: "Connecting Point A to Point B" isn't enough; your trainee must understand why you make the connection.

Use graphics: Draw lots of pictures, and have students do the same. Come up with a variety of installations, especially variations you're involved with during training.

Get lots of questions: Your students need to ask questions. If they're not forthcoming, keep prodding. You must locate gaps in their knowledge.

Don't expect knowledge you have not given: Don't ask questions about things you have not taught. Intimidating students and showing them their ignorance doesn't help anyone.

Work hard to communicate well: Try different ways of disseminating information. Teach slowly and minimize distractions. It's better to firmly understand one idea, than five partial ones.

Spend some time before and after work: Remember: Training is a big job. Set aside some time solely to training.

Choose your students' tasks carefully: Make sure you don't throw your students into jobs they don't understand. The first time they do something new, do it with them. The second time, look over their shoulder (without intimidating them).

Sidebar: Other Training Options

Aside from OJT, the following options are available for training installers.

  • Local community colleges provide excellent training, but require a serious time commitment. If you have to train installers quickly, this option may not be for you.

  • Traveling training programs can also be excellent, but are only available at certain times and places. They can be expensive, but they'll provide your new installer with a general knowledge base in just a few days.

  • Correspondence courses are few but available. This author knows of only one covering data communications, offered through Iowa State University. (In the interest of disclosure, this author adds he teaches the Iowa State course.) This training is a nice adjunct to OJT, since it allows the new technician to study after work and discuss lessons with the trainer.

  • Apprenticeship programs provide well-trained installers, regardless if you're a union or nonunion contractor. However, in either case, you'll have to train the new recruits in your company's methods of test documentation, wire marking, and perhaps a few other specifics.

Remember, training is no small task: The trainer is doing this on top of his or her regular job.

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