New Training Is Raising System Integrators’ Skills

Although technology constitutes an ever greater percentage of modern commercial building design, it is too often still an afterthought among architects—a reality that frequently results in sloppy integration of a building’s infrastructure, change orders, missed deadlines, and rising costs.

Clearly, the best way to avoid costly quagmires is to fully integrate technology professionals who know what they’re doing into both the design and building processes. But how do you identify integrators that have the expertise and skills to get the job done right the first time?

The answer, says Jim Faber, is to look for certification that in-depth training has taken place and that the required skill sets have been achieved. As a senior associate with Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams, a Dallas consulting firm that offers design services in acoustics, sound, noise control, A/V, broadcast, and theatrical systems, Faber has had a front-row view of the convergence of technology and architectural design in recent years. He sometimes doesn’t like what he sees.

“My pet peeve in our industry is that historically we have not done a very good job of educating individuals,” Faber says. “Individuals work extremely hard, and do things wrong because of a lack of training or poor training.”

Faber faults employers for not seeing to it that technicians get the training they need to keep abreast of ever-changing technology demands. To help correct this situation, the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), which represents 2,500 companies in the commercial electronic systems industry, has taken a leadership role in an industry-wide effort to develop quality technical training as a crucial first step in creating a strong professional identity for commercial electronic technicians.

In 1998, the NSCA joined with other industry associations to found the Consortium for Electronic Systems Technician Training. The goal of the group — which last year renamed itself the Electronic Systems Industry Consortium — is to the identify specific technical competencies needed by technical personnel and to find ways to address a chronic shortage of entry-level technical employees.

What resulted was a curriculum now known as the Electronic Systems Technician (EST) Training and Certification program.

“In the past, the process has been hit and miss,” Faber says. One of the problems, in his view, is that architects often fail to seek out companies and individuals with the specific competencies needed for a job, preferring instead to rely on existing relationships: “They get comfortable with someone. and that is who you deal with.”

But Faber also predicts that will change as the credentialing program grows in visibility and architects become aware that specifying certain levels of expertise for projects “will give an assurance that there will be a satisfying result.”

EST certification is earned in five stages, each requiring challenging written exams and hands-on performance verifications [See EST Certification Illustration ]. “The goal at each one of these levels, from installer to technician to project management (with additional categories to be added later), is to have a well trained industry that interfaces with the commercial construction industry,” Faber says.

Certified electronic systems technicians (C-ESTs) and registered electronic systems integrators (R-ESIs) are better trained and more knowledgeable about systems . Technicians must demonstrate competency in electrical and electronic theory and safety, low-voltage cabling, and switching devices and timers. With a few additional hours of general study, an Associates degree is available for technicians completing the four-year training program .

The EST training and certification program offers benefits to the industry, the contractor and the individual alike, in the form of standardized levels of technical knowledge, increased client satisfaction, and the opportunity for members to expand career opportunities. Faber sits on the credentialing council, which collaborates with colleges and trade schools that historically have served as gateways into the electronics industry.

To develop its professionals, the NSCA Education Foundation is tasked with focusing on continuing education programs. Current funded programs from the foundation include:

  • Training & Certification – NSCA’s largest initiative, the NSCA Education Foundation, raised $135,000 to partially fund the development of this program and to provide tuition assistance to 72 students for the eight-week Certified-Electronic Systems Technician (C-EST)™ Online Prep Courses.
  • Education Vouchers – The foundation offers its contractor members a $100 education voucher annually to be used for NSCA classes. Available classes include Systems Integration Expo® classes, regional project management classes, and EST courses.
  • Student Memberships – The foundation also funds 200 NSCA student memberships. Students receive access to the NSCA job board, free admission to the Systems Integration Expo®, NSCA bookstore discounts, and reduced fees for education programs.
  • Scholarships Endowment Program – Recently, the foundation initiated this fund, which each year offers scholarships to students entering the electronics field who demonstrated a financial need.

“As a business person, I’m not a least-cost person,” says Craig Thompson, president of Thompson Electronics Company of Peoria, Ill. “I think that the more you spend on education and invest in your people, the better your product is.

Thompson also serves as the president of the NSCA Education Foundation, which raises funds for educational programs outside of the NSCA to help elevate the education level of the industry and to nurture the next generation of technicians. “We’re here to help the entire industry to finance the education of those who may want to get into the industry and those who are training to be better involved in the industry,” says Thompson.

Along with considering technicians’ experience and training, Thompson encourages the entire design team to ask questions, listen, and consider the function of the facility and the end-users to determine the best way to implement various technologies. “The most successful projects,” says Thompson, “are when the owner and the design team involve a consultant and they are aware of all the different technologies early in the game, before they turn the first spade of dirt.”

In addition to creating facilities that are safer and more functional, Thompson says, improved technology integration results in cost savings: “For example, cabling infrastructure integration can save a lot of money because it is thought out early where all the cables need to go and what systems they need to serve and what technologies are appropriate for each system.”

To further strengthen technicians’ professional identity, the NSCA also worked with the United States government to establish a standard occupation code for ESTs. Recently, Electronic Systems Technician became a federally recognized occupation.

While the certification programs are gaining rapid acceptance within the industry as a method of ensuring competency, they are only the first step, says Faber. The industry, he says, must next focus on educating architects and building owners to the rapidly evolving relationship between systems integrators, designers and builders.

“Electronics is changing everything,” says Faber, “and the industry is no longer mom-and-pop. We are maturing.”