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What comes first? The human or the machine?

Sun, 08/31/1997 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty

As many in the industry have recently discovered, telecommunications competition is a very sharp, two-edged sword. While it supposedly invigorates market forces and spurs innovative services, it can also cause a considerable amount of upheaval in individual companies scrambling to improve their competitive edge.

Witness the recent revolving door and system divestiture activity at TCI as CEO Leo Hindery endeavors to get that company's house in order. Or, even more unsettling, cable icon Amos Hostetter Jr.'s abrupt departure over "irreconcilable differences" with US West's MediaOne cable division about its decision to move corporate headquarters from Boston to Denver, lock, stock, and possibly without a barrel of its most talented executives.

According to respondents in CED's 1997 Salary and System Survey, these two widely publicized examples of turmoil in the ranks only hint at the rumblings going on below the surface. In an industry that's trying desperately to tighten down the financial hatches, while developing and deploying new technologies just to stay afloat, something has to give.

Seemingly, for many who responded to this year's survey, what's being jettisoned is a strong commitment to the people who are working in the front lines of the industry. Making matters worse, competitive broadband providers continue to stalk the cable industry's perimeter. Respondents say these companies are stealing away cable professionals at all levels with better pay and benefits, or simply by recognizing and respecting their skills, talent and experience.

Despite public pronouncements of "localizing" system management by such cable behemoths like TCI, many respondents complain that corporate meddling and micro management are hobbling local operations and unnecessarily (if not dangerously) raising the frustration and stress levels of the rank-and-file.

It's not so much that this year's respondents represent some vocal minority that's performing some perennial bitch session. The fact is that they love the work they do, and they know the potential is there to make it even better.

Bottom line, for many of those who answered this year's survey, the primary decision the industry has to face is whether it will make the investment and put the proper people in place, either by retaining and motivating those already in its ranks, or hiring and training new, dedicated people to keep both established and ground-breaking technology working.

Questions and answers

This year's survey contained a number of format changes. In order to optimize CED's current reader profile, five job categories were used, instead of the previous four. As a result, a proportional mailing was conducted to garner more responses from those managers and supervisors who make up a majority of CED's readership.

This year's respondents were also fairly representative in the size of systems they work for in the industry. The system sizes represented in the survey replies included 10.1 percent from systems of less than 1,000 to 9,999 subscribers; 50.1 percent from systems of 10,000 to 79,999 subscribers; and 38 percent from systems of 80,000 or more subscribers.

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Those who answered this year's survey were, on average (see Figure 1), older and have worked in the industry longer than those who responded to previous CED surveys. And, on the whole, while they have been with their employers longer than respondents of the past, they were relatively new in their most current positions, underscoring the fact that companies seem to be busy these days shuffling their personnel.

This year's survey also altered the types of questions asked. The survey was broken up in three basic sections. The first section dealt with respondent statistics like job classification, salary, salary increases, and industry/employer/job tenure. The second section asked for responses about developments or events in individual systems, while the third section focused on the respondents themselves and their particular jobs.

Know thy enemy

When it came to rating the most immediate threat to their cable systems, respondents were given a choice of direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services, wireless TV services (e.g., MMDS), RBOC/telephone companies or any other they cared to list.

Despite assertions to the contrary from corporate cable headquarters around the country, survey respondents, by a wide majority (61.7 percent) laid the "most immediate threat" label on DBS service providers. Far behind the DBS leader, were RBOCs (19.1 percent) and then wireless TV services (13 percent).

While respondents were clearly cognizant of the competitors they face, they were equally aware of what it's going to take to combat these alternate broadband providers. One perceptive technical respondent from a mid-sized system in New England summarized his system's situation and their response to the DBS threat. "Our system," he says, "is trying to educate the customers as to the differences between our cable service and DBS service. We offer local channels, where DBS doesn't. We have a 59-minute guarantee if they lose their picture. We also offer free additional outlets. With DBS, they need to buy another receiver.

"If we do lose a customer, we will call them back in two to four weeks and offer them a free reconnect. We also recently rebuilt our system, going from 300 MHz to 750 MHz. And, we have an excellent customer service program."

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A technical management respondent from a large system in the South notes his system faces the prospect of going head-to-head with BellSouth's MMDS service in the near future. Yet, his confidence in cable's ability to meet that threat is unshaken. "Our main strategy," he says, "is to continue to focus on service excellence. High-tech offerings will come on their own without the need for accelerated timelines. Besides, we want the products we launch to be quality ones that won't generate negative consumer perceptions."

The career crystal ball

Over the past several years, a considerable amount of grumbling and dissatisfaction has been expressed on a variety of topics. One of the most constant themes seen in the forms sent back to CED were cable professionals openly questioning whether, for whatever reason, they would remain in the industry. This year's survey decided to face the situation head-on and pose an interesting "what if" scenario.

When asked point-blank whether they expected to be in the industry three years from now, a solid 89.7 percent replied in the affirmative. Just 10.3 percent replied negatively. Those who believe that they will be somewhere else in three years' time, had a variety of reasons.

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One respondent said, "Benefits (are) not keeping up with demands. The cable industry is using re-regulation and change as excuses to erode pay and benefits." While one cable professional stated that there was "limited opportunity for continued financial growth and security," another simply said, "This job is not fun anymore."

Interestingly, the 90 percent who expressed support for staying in the industry is not as solid as it would first seem. Given a hypothetical situation where all things were equal (e.g., pay, professional standing, job location, etc.), we asked if they could find a comparable job outside the industry in the next three years, would they be inclined to take such a job. More than a third (39.8 percent) said they would.

The reasons given offer some interesting, if not blunt, insights and reveal a common thread:

"To get away from the bullshit that the corporate office passes on each day. Corporate forgot their basic role should be support, not a dictatorship."

"Concerned about downsizing; most stress I've ever been under — always giving more and more; family life starting to suffer."

"Overworked. Underpaid. Constant standby."

"Because at this time, we are not paid commensurate with our job knowledge, skill level and level of work. We're overworked and underpaid. A five-year telephone installer makes as much as a 15-year maintenance technician."

How much is too much?

This year's survey decided to take a close look at the oft-repeated theme of too much work and not enough pay. When asked, on average, how many hours a week they worked, it seems as if most of the respondents had never heard of a 40-hour work week (see Figure 4).

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In four out of five job classifications, only about a third of any one group had work weeks in the 40 to 49 hour range. The notable exception was technical workers, where nearly two-thirds (62.5 percent) said their work totaled 40 to 49 hours per week.

In fact, most of the respondents in the top four job classifications had work weeks of 50 or more hours. Management types, however, were even more excessive in the time they put in for work. While 80.1 percent of them claimed they put in more than 50 hours of work a week, fully a third of them stated they worked more than 60 hours per week.

Even more telling was that two-thirds (66.5 percent) of all respondents received no additional consideration and/or compensation (e.g., extra time off, extra pay, etc.) for these extra hours. While majorities in both engineering (61.5 percent) and technical (54.2 percent) jobs did receive some sort of extra compensation/consideration, large majorities in the other three job classifications did not. More than two-thirds of the respondents in each of those job classifications (i.e., management/69 percent; engineering management/73.8 percent; technical management/71.2 percent) reported they did not receive any extra compensation/consideration.

Stress? Who's stressed?

It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to figure out that long hours at work can lead to an increase of stress-related problems. When asked if job-related stress was becoming a matter of concern to them personally, overwhelming majorities in each job classification answered in the affirmative. Technical management types led the way with 78.9 percent expressing concern about stress. They were followed (in descending order) by engineering (71.4 percent), technical (66.7 percent), engineering management (64.3 percent), and management (61.3 percent).

Respondents were also asked to determine the severity of the personal stress they were experiencing. Roughly a quarter (28.6 percent) said it was either "periodic" or occurred just "once in a while." The vast majority rated their stress levels either as a "growing concern" (45.1 percent), "very high" (22.6 percent), or downright "terrible" (3.7 percent).

Respondents were then asked to choose the top three causes for their personal stress. Their choices included: unrealistic deadlines for projects, not enough resources (money and/or personnel) to do jobs right, not enough/appropriate equipment or tools to do jobs right, improper personal training to do jobs right, staff not trained properly to do jobs right, too much "meddling" by corporate/management types, or excessive indecision or "flip-flopping" by management.

Far and away, the top cause (44.7 percent) for personal stress among respondents was not having enough resources (money and/or personnel) to do jobs right. One engineering management respondent from a large system in the South likens cable's personnel problem to that of America's favorite pastime.

"We seem to lose people across the board," he states. "People who have been here a long time tend to stay. Those we hire in the competitive marketplace through headhunters, etc., are always looking for the next move.

"While the cable TV industry is upgrading and even making incursions into other revenue-making communications efforts, the labor market will be like major league baseball — high salaries and (lots of) mobility. We have a great loss in new hires at the most basic customer service and technician trainee levels. We also have a moderately heavy turn-over in mid-management folks. Most of that movement is probably stress and pressure related."

Coming in at second place as a cause of personal stress was excessive indecision or "flip-flopping" by management. In third place, respondents say unrealistic deadlines for projects is having an impact.

Corporate communications, or the lack thereof, seems to be a recurring theme that effects a range of perceived problems in many of the respondent surveys. As one engineering management professional puts it, when "communications flow is situational," it's highly problematic that much will get accomplished.

"The military," he says, "would call it 'need to know.' The problem seems to be who's making the decisions or how the criteria is formed when determining who may 'need to know.' This organization, as a matter of policy, keeps info at the highest levels it can, without passing it down.

"I don't think this is from malice, as much as from having comfort with a certain management style — a style that flies in the face of what is proclaimed as their 'style goal' — teamwork and team play.

"The result of this communications gap is extraordinary pressure in certain kinds of jobs. Rather than team solutions, mandated solutions which address symptoms keep the pressure on certain jobs.

"I don't think higher management sees the problems the way many of us do. They also have promulgated a pretty consistent image of 'shooting the messengers.' So, it's risky to make basic management problems known."

When it comes to assessing stress levels within the systems or departments they work in, survey respondents are more united. Big majorities in all five job classifications say system/departmental stress is becoming a concern. Technical management types lead the way (84.1 percent) in making this assessment. And, not too far behind were engineering (78.6 percent), engineering management (73.8 percent), technical (70.8 percent) and management (64.5 percent).

The causes for this system/departmental stress can be found primarily from three factors. The top cause, as it was with personal stress, is not having enough resources to do the job right. And, similarly, the second most common cause is excessive indecision or "flip-flopping" by management. The third cause, say respondents, is that the staff is not trained properly to do jobs right.

While the fact that stress is on the rise comes as no surprise to those either in or out of the industry, what does seem alarming is that few cable companies recognize the problem, let alone are taking any steps to lessen its impact. According to this year's survey respondents, 80 percent said their companies are not taking any positive steps to reduce job-related stress.

Those who claimed their companies are instituting measures to reduce stress were asked to briefly describe what their company was doing in this regard. The answers, while varied, showed some companies are finally taking the situation seriously. Stress alleviators included:

"Developing self-managed work teams to provide ownership of the department."

"Training, time management. Appreciation - picnics, dinners, off-site activities."

"Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Stress management classes, wellness care, fitness center membership reimbursement."

"Stress counseling; training programs; graceful understanding about mishaps and errors resulting from stressful environment; increasing workforce; redefining work roles and responsibilities."

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"We are splitting the crew and working four, 10-hour days alternating weeks. This gives them a four-day weekend every other week."

Making the right decisions

CED readers were also queried on what services or technologies their systems were deploying or thinking about deploying (see Figure 5). When it came to actually having bitten the bullet, more than half who responded to this question (50.4 percent) said their companies had decided to rebuild their systems. Of that total, nearly two-thirds (61.9 percent) said their systems were being rebuilt to 750 MHz configurations.

Other areas where operators had gotten off the dime and taken action included (in descending order) activating the reverse path (42.2 percent), cable modems (35.7 percent), digital ad insertion (33 percent) and digital set-tops.

According to survey respondents, their systems were still in the discussion stage on a number of technologies and/or services. The top five topics of conversation around the country, according to survey respondents, included (in descending order) digital set-tops (28.7 percent), cable modems (26.6 percent), telephony (21.7 percent), TV-based Internet services (18.3 percent) and activating the reverse path (15.7 percent).

Dealing with the powers that be

Survey respondents were also asked to rate their system's overall relationship with its franchising authority. While 3.2 percent believed that relationship to be "terrible," only 11 percent said there was "occasional trouble."

Just over a fifth of the respondents (20.1 percent) termed their relationship as "satisfactory." The biggest majority, 47.5 percent, typified their franchise relationship as "generally very good." And, nearly another fifth of the respondents (18.3 percent) gave their franchise relationship an "excellent" rating.

As a follow-up to the overall rating question, respondents were asked which issues tend to be most contentious between them and their franchiser.

Not too surprisingly, a whopping majority (71.9 percent) of the respondents said the number-one issue was rate increases. Pulling out ahead (32.9 percent) of all the others as the number-two issue was video service offerings, like the number of channels or programming. The third most vexing problem, according to CED survey respondents (noted by 21.9 percent), was the slow pace of deploying new services like high-speed data.

Putting training to the test

While respondents continued their call for increased training in other sections of the survey, the vast majority (92.9 percent) noted their employers had established policies for paying for job-related education or training outside of regular working hours. Of that majority, 85.7 percent said their employers would reimburse 80 to 100 percent of the cost of additional training taken outside the job.

A similar number (81 percent), said their employers provided on-the-job training as well. Respondents were then asked to rate the training they received in certain areas using a 1 to 5 scale (i.e., 1 being low, 5 being high). Of those who took job-related safety training, the vast majority (81.7 percent) rated that training satisfactory or above.

A common theme among the respondents was their frustration in trying to manage others. When asked about training in this area, nearly half (47.7 percent) said the training they received was very good. And, while over a quarter (25.6 percent) of those who took this training found it at least satisfactory, nearly a quarter (23.2 percent) also found it either unsatisfactory, or at best, only somewhat useful.

When it came to basic technical training, it was almost evenly divided for more than two-thirds (70.3 percent) of those who took such training and judged it to be either satisfactory or very good (34.8 percent and 35.5 percent respectively). Yet, among the technical job ranks, this same type of training was equally split (40 percent each) between those who found it either very good or better and those who found it only somewhat useful or worse.

Challenge free-for-all

One of the few open-ended questions in the survey asked respondents to list the three biggest challenges their systems face in the next 12 to 18 months. There were a wide range of answers, but a few topics did get the lion's share of attention. By far, worries over system rebuilds and upgrades dominated the replies on this question. Many related those upgrade concerns to the challenge they felt was being posed by competitors like DBS and MMDS services.

High-speed data rollouts and activation of the return path also garnered considerable attention. Motivation, morale and workforce levels was a topic triumvirate that appeared repeatedly in replies to this question. In fact, in a related question about workforce levels, respondents were asked whether their systems had increased, decreased or maintained their technical workforce level this past year.

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Despite all the gnashing of teeth over no staff/no money concerns in this poll, as well as surveys in the past, 45.4 percent of the respondents replied that technical workforce levels had increased, by an average of 13 people (see Figure 6). Yet, more than half the respondents said their workforce totals remained static (35.3 percent) or were actually decreased (19.3 percent). Those systems that reported decreases, on average, lost nine technical workers each.

Can't get no satisfaction?

Finally, respondents were asked to rank their level of satisfaction in a variety of areas on a 1 to 5 scale. The areas they were queried about include: financial compensation, opportunities for advancement, job security, challenging/interesting work, overall employee environment, relations with supervisors/management, quality of equipment and/or tools, standard employee benefits (i.e., medical/life insurance, vacation, etc.) and employee "perks" and/or incentives (e.g., comp time, performance incentives, etc.).

When all the responses are averaged, it seems most respondents are on the same wavelength when it comes to what pleases them most. Four out of the five job categories find the challenging work in the industry to be its biggest asset. The sole exception are technical types who, on average, think their relationship with their supervisors/management is the biggest plus in their job.

In expressing their displeasure among these areas, the respondents, on average, fall into two camps. Management, engineering management and engineering types find opportunities for advancement to be the least desirable side of the business they're in. Technical management and technical types seem to think employee perks or incentives like comp time and performance incentives is where their job falls shortest.

Putting priorities in place

Throughout this year's survey, as it was readily evident in the past as well, cable professionals are pleading with the powers that be to get their respective operations in order. Simply put, they're asking operators to set a priority on people. It's not easy. It's not cheap. But by most accounts from those on the front lines, as well as those further up the cable feeding chain, operators are courting even more trouble if they ignore this plea and focus on technology alone.

As one upper management type for a large operator put it, shifting the workload to a static or reduced workforce for potential short-term gain with the deployment of new services solves nothing. "The very first asset that must be put in place," he says, "is people to run the business. Trying to add it (additional work) to the workload of existing folks will simply mean a poorly promoted business, as it will be in second place to the core business (of video delivery).

"Management (and I are one) must make the commitment to hire and pay the right people or be stuck with mediocre results. The new businesses are not a gold mine and actually will take a lot of hard work, intelligence and capital to develop. They will not (be) cash flow positive in year one, and it must be realized that they are not an add-on to the core business like PPV or new product tiers. They are separate businesses marketed to new and different residential and commercial customers."

Editor's Note: Special thanks to Gary Lemons who spent many hours hunkered over his computer entering and collating survey responses and statistics for this report.

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