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Moving to the head of the class

Fri, 07/31/1998 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty, Associate Editor
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To the casual observer, it looks like everything in the cable industry is finally coming together.

Operators are continuing to play to their strengths by swapping or selling systems to fortify their competitive advantage. Retail availability of high-speed cable modems continues on its fast track. And faith in the industry's broadband pipe (and the advanced services it can deliver) continues to grow with major investments from computer giants like Microsoft and mergers with telco behemoths like AT&T.

New technologies, lots of money... it would seem all is well with the world of cable.

Yet, according to CED's exclusive 1998 Salary & System Survey, that picture is seriously myopic. For while the executives plan for tomorrow, the men and women in the trenches are growing increasingly concerned that they are not being given the basic information and knowledge they need to carry out today's upgrades and expansions. This already-bad situation of inadequate schooling in new technologies is being compounded, say respondents, by muddled management and the draw of higher salaries from private contractors and competitive industries.

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Figure 1: Average salaries and percentage of salary increases of respondents by job classification and region.

In the days since it was announced that AT&T and TCI would merge, a new wrinkle has appeared in the cable industry employee/employer relationship. With AT&T being a highly-unionized company, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has targeted TCI as a potential source of new members. In fact, the CWA's contract with AT&T specifically allows the union to freely approach employees of companies that AT&T acquires. (See this month's article.)

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Management Survey Profile
Average age47.6
Tenure in industry20+ years
Tenure in job15–20 years
Tenure with employer15–20 years
Average # of subsLess than 1,000
Average 1998 salary$55,246*
*Average low due to low number of replies in this category

Engineering Management Survey Profile
Average age45.7
Tenure in industry20+ years
Tenure in job1–3 years
Tenure with employer15–20 years
Average # of subs120,000+
Average 1998 salary$72,778

As a result, a year from now when the next survey is conducted, arguments about such hot-button issues as competitive pay, training, pensions, and job-related stress may be undergoing major shifts not only at AT&T/TCI, but throughout the industry.

Worrisome problems

Time and again this year, respondents bemoan the dearth of training and the technical skills they need to do their jobs. When asked to detail the three biggest job-related concerns or challenges they face in the next 12 to 18 months, a clear majority expressed worry over the lack of training for themselves and their co-workers.

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Figure 2: What is your knowledge/comfort level with the following topics? Data/Internet protocols: The "language" of the Internet; MCNS/DOCSIS standard: Cable modem interoperability specification; Ethernet networks: 10baseT and up; topology as a shared network; Ethernet card installation: The PC element to cable installs; PC operating systems: Making data run over Win 3.1, Windows 95, Mac OS; Quality of Service (QoS) parameters: Prerequisites for providing tiered data services; OSI layers: Physical (PHY), media access control (MAC) and up; Universal Serial Bus technologies: The looming shift in PC configurations; Firewire/IEEE 1394: An evolving standard for connecting intelligent in-home electronics; Data fragmentation issues: The forerunner to QoS and data service tiers; Application program interface issues: How content runs on multiple operating systems; Packet technologies: IP telephony, video telephony over a shared cable network; Bit error rate testing: Finding trouble in the new data environment.

Obviously, training is available. But as demand mounts to get new services deployed, many question whether there is enough training being planned to meet those deployment demands. According to survey results, the answer is a resounding "No!"

When asked if their employers provided on-the-job training, a clear majority (63.3 percent) said yes. Of those who replied affirmatively, a solid majority (72.1 percent) rated that training either satisfactory or very good.

Yet, in the same breath, respondents say the training that is available is simply inadequate to fill their needs. In fact, according to some respondents, not only is it insufficient, but some say they're actually losing ground that they'll be hard pressed to regain.

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Technical Management Survey Profile
Average age43.3
Tenure in industry20+ years
Tenure in job1–3 years
Tenure with employer15–20 years
Average # of subs40,000–79,00
Average 1998 salary$46,079

Engineering Survey Profile
Average age43.6
Tenure in industry15–20 years
Tenure in job1–3 years
Tenure with employer1–3 years
Average # of subs120,000+
Average 1998 salary$44,790

A middle-management cable professional who works for a small system (10,000 to 19,999 subscribers) in the Northwest summarized feelings and frustrations felt by a large number of respondents in the survey.

When asked what were the three biggest challenges his system faced in the next 12 to 18 months, he replied, "Training, training and more training. Things are happening so fast that the technicians are beginning to feel left behind, even though we provide training, both on-site and off."

Like many in the industry who constantly battle the clock to get all they have to do done, this pro is having trouble balancing his work load to achieve both short- and long-term goals. "I used to have more time," he says, "to read industry magazines and papers. But, of late, the time has become harder to find. I'm constantly behind with my reading."

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Figure 3: When broken down by system size, the hierarchy of importance of things those systems have decided to do is rearranged in almost every instance.
Up to the challenge?

With the advent of advanced digital services like high-speed data, digital TV/set-tops and IP telephony, respondents were asked if they felt they personally had enough training or knowledge necessary to assist in the deployment of such services. Nearly three-quarters (71.7 percent) of the respondents were emphatic in their belief that they didn't have enough information or knowledge to do those jobs.

Recently, much has been made of the fact that some operators are having surprising success in getting their installers to hook up not only plain old cable, but high-speed cable modems and telephones, as well. (See "Installing the future," CED, June 1998.) When asked if their system technicians had the skill sets to do such multiple service installations, two-thirds of the respondents (67.9 percent) adamantly believe their co-workers do not have those skills.

One of the most telling questions in the survey regarding current levels of information and training dealt with the personal knowledge respondents had about specific topics related to many of the advanced services being deployed. While some topics are quite familiar (e.g., MCNS/DOCSIS standard, PC operating systems), others raise questioning looks from even seasoned professionals (e.g., FireWire, data fragmentation issues).

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Technical Survey Profile
Average age45.1
Tenure in industry20+ years
Tenure in job12–15 years
Tenure with employer12–15 years
Average # of subs40,000–79,000
Average 1998 salary$36,893

Overall, whether averaged as an entire group or by job classification, the cable pros who responded would seem to be somewhat underwhelmed with confidence when it comes to what they know about some of these particular terms. (See Figure 2).

In fact, the overall comprehension of these topics is not encouraging, underscoring the respondents' concerns about staying abreast of critical technological advances and changes. On average, the knowledge/comfort levels in most of these areas did not even reach the "adequate" level. In fact, respondents typically said they had little or no comprehension of these terms.

If people don't understand basic terminology, how can they provide the services based on those concepts? Apparently it's a question more and more operators should be asking themselves.

Stressful situation

According to this year's survey, there also seems to be no relief in sight for the troublesome-and-growing trend of job-related stress. When asked if such stress was becoming a matter of concern, more than three-quarters (76.3 percent) agreed that it was.

Respondents were then asked to gauge their stress levels, anywhere from being 'bad' only once in a great while to being 'terrible,' almost debilitating at times. Nearly half (48.2 percent) claimed their stress levels were definitely on the increase, and becoming a real concern. Just over one-quarter of the respondents said it was periodic but still manageable. Yet nearly one-fifth of the respondents (19.9 percent) said it was very high and very troubling. Small minorities took to the extremes. Only 2.4 percent experienced stress once in a great while, and 3.7 percent termed it terrible and debilitating at times.

Punching the clock

Some of the widely felt stress could have something to do with the fact that, as in previous years, many cable professionals wouldn't know a 40-hour work week if it knocked them off a pole. When broken out by job classification, on average, technical personnel come closest to the 40-hour work week with an average of 44.7 hours per week reported. The highest overall average is claimed by engineering managers, with 53.5 hours put in every week.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of technical management professionals claim they put in 50 to 59 hours of work each week. More than two-fifths of the engineering managers and general managers (41.7 and 42.9 percent, respectively) say they put in similar hours on the job.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the management and a third of the engineering management respondents (25.7 and 33.3 percent, respectively) said they're putting in, on average, 60 to 69 hours per week. Interestingly though, when asked if they think the number of hours they put in are excessive in terms of the pay and/or bonuses they receive, majorities in the management, engineering and technical ranks (64.7, 70.6 and 59.5 percent, respectively) say no. Engineering managers are evenly split on the issue, while a slight majority (54.8 percent) of the technical management people believe the hours they put in are excessive.

Are these cable professionals getting any kind of extra consideration or compensation (e.g., comp time off, extra pay, etc.) for all this "overtime" work? Clear majorities in the upper ranks (mgmt./58.8 percent, eng. mgmt./79.2 percent, tech. mgmt./66.7 percent) all say no. Engineers are evenly split on the issue, while a solid majority (72.2 percent) of the technical workers say they are being compensated in one way or another.

The state of the systems

Perhaps the reason employees don't see their workloads as excessive is because they're getting additional help in the form of more employees. In fact, 43.9 percent said their workforce levels had increased by approximately 21 workers on average, while only five percent say they actually saw a reduction in staffing levels. Half said their staffs are the same size as last year.

As far as competitive threats go, respondents, by a wide margin (61.8 percent), see the threat from DBS as their system's most potent competition at this point. RBOCs take second place, with 17 percent deeming them the most threatening, and wireless TV (MMDS, etc.) brings up the rear with 11.3 percent thinking it a clear and present danger to cable revenues.

Respondents were also given a list of eight technologies or upgrade activities (i.e., activating the reverse path; rebuilding the system; cable modems; advanced analog set-tops; digital set-tops; TV-based Internet services like WorldGate, WebTV, etc.; digital ad insertion; and telephony) and asked which ones they have decided to act on, and which ones they are still discussing.

Overall percentages rearranged the order of the list considerably. On top of the "decided to do list" is rebuilding the system (46.7 percent), followed (in descending order) by reverse path activation (45.8 percent); cable modems (38.7 percent); digital ad insertion (37.8 percent); and digital set-tops (37.3 percent).

The top three topics for discussion, overall, include cable modems (23.6 percent), digital set-tops (21.3 percent), and telephony (18.2 percent).

When the responses are broken down by system size, the hierarchy of importance is rearranged in almost every instance (See Figure 3).

The chicken or the egg?

All this activity has a certain dynamic quality of its own. That's why it's no surprise that nearly two-thirds of all the respondents (64.4 percent) say they see their jobs as either challenging or interesting.

But that doesn't negate some very basic concerns. The fast pace of technological development runs the risk of outpacing the very people who have the job of making these advances accessible to the population at large. As this year's survey clearly shows, it may be time for operators and workers alike to gather their thoughts and establish some hard and fast commitments on long-term training goals and systems.

Education is the foundation of any success in business. If cable expects to be able to stand up and deliver its one-stop shop for information and entertainment services, it may be time for the industry to get back to the basics—reading, writing and retraining—in a whole new way.


Acknowledgements
Special thanks to Whitman Elementary in Littleton, Colo. and our visiting artists for this report: Samuel Ruth,age 6; Jonathan Ruth, age 10; Alysson Lafferty, age 11; and Kady Lafferty, age 9.

 

Stand up and be counted...

A total of 2,000 questionnaires were sent out to a randomly-selected list of CED readers, with an equal number of surveys going to five job categories listed below. (A total of 11.1 percent of the questionnaires were completed, returned and tabulated.) Respondents were asked to classify themselves by one of the following job titles:

  • Management (e.g., Vice President, General Manager, Assistant Manager; Area Manager, Director, etc.) represented 16.1 percent of those who responded.
  • Engineering Management (e.g., Corporate Engineer, Senior Engineer, VP of Engineering, Engineering Director or Supervisor, Chief Engineer, etc.) represented 11.2 percent of those who responded.
  • Technical Management (e.g., Director — Technical Operations, Chief Technician, CO-System Manager, MTS, Installation Manager/Supervisor, Technical Supervisor, etc.) represented 47.5 percent of those who responded.
  • Engineering (e.g., Engineer, Staff Engineer, OSP Engineer, etc.) represented 8.1 percent of those who responded.
  • Technical (e.g., Headend Technician, System Technician, Line/Bench Technician, Technicians, Installer, etc.) represented 17.1 percent of those who responded.

All for one, and one for all?

Amidst all the hoopla of the announced merger between AT&T and TCI, two very salient, and potentially far-reaching, facts were generally overlooked. AT&T is a highly organized union workplace, while the entrepreneurial cable industry has a long history of almost rabid opposition to union organizers.

Given the results of CED's annual surveys where workers have repeatedly bemoaned the industry's performance when it comes to such issues as pay, training, employee benefits and more, the AT&T/TCI merger may have a more groundbreaking impact than many observers, especially other operators, previously thought.

At the center of this new three-way tango is the Communications Workers of America (www.cwa-union.org) and its 600,000 dues-paying members.

Jim Irvine, CWA's vice president of communications and technologies, notes this is not the first time a telecommunications merger of a union and non-union business has come up. He says a similar situation came about when AT&T bought NCR (which, after a flawed assimilation effort, it later divested).

Irvine says this time it's different. "At that point, we had different contractual language (with AT&T) from what we have now. Now we have an expedited election process that does not have to go to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) for union recognition. Instead, it stays in-house. Now the process includes any purchases that AT&T might make."

He says AT&T's current contract with the CWA contains specific ground rules on how the company and the union will interact during union recruitment efforts in acquired companies. "It will allow us the opportunity," says Irvine, "to do organizing without the management trying to kill the union. Essentially, it sets some value statements between each other. So we couldn't say, for instance, 'John Malone is making a lot of money on this thing, and you're getting screwed and he's getting all the cream.'

"We would talk about what we've done, what we can do about the bargaining process, about the grievance procedures—the kinds of things that a union would bring to members. The company, on the other side, cannot hire anti-union consultants or law firms to fight us.

"So, it's a very neutral way to organize. The basis of these provisions is that people can make a choice of whether or not they want to be unionized without any coercion from either the union or the company."

Irvine says the union has already had discussions with AT&T about the situation and how the union effort will proceed if the merger is approved. He says the CWA is very interested in making the merger work and that both the company and the union are determined to maintain AT&T's brand reputation, especially after it gets into the cable business.

"We've already met with AT&T," says Irvine, "and talked with them about the things we can bring to the table to help them make sure their marketable brand name doesn't get diminished. I think we had a good talk about the value we can bring as workers, the importance of things like training and some of our experiences with TCI. In general, I think we had a very good conversation about how we can work together. In fact, I think the whole organizing effort we do with TCI should be a signature effort."

Irvine says the union has a "good relationship" with AT&T, despite a recently concluded bargaining period where a "rich buyout in the pension to the managers" slashed the contract's approval margin by nearly 20 percent (roughly 55 percent vs. a usual 75 percent approval). He notes there was an AT&T strike in 1983, followed by a month-long strike in 1986.

But, says Irvine, the union has changed since then. "We're a union that in the past had a mantra of no contract, no work. But, we changed that about 10 years ago and said we would, if need be, work past the termination date of a contract. Since we did that and have employed other tactics to put pressure on the company, we've worked beyond the contract termination dates a couple of times without a strike.

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"We're a union that is not anxious to strike. But, we're not going to back away from one. We have an extremely rich strike fund, more than $260 million, and we pay members money every week while they're on strike. What we've learned is that if the strike is not an issue and you don't start waving that around and rattling sabers, you wind up with a less acrimonious bargaining situation."

Irvine expresses confidence in the pending union effort in an industry that's historically fought such things. He eagerly admits the union has been contacted by many TCI workers, both past and present. And he believes the union's record in supporting employees' professional goals will strike a chord with TCI workers.

"I think," says Irvine, "successful companies in the future are going to have employees who are turned on to what's going on and are well-trained. You can tell the difference when you talk to them on the phone or face-to-face. It's just a self-assurance they have that others don't have. And if you call with a problem, they fix your problem. I think that's all, as consumers, any of us want."

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