Will Youth Be Served in Pro AV?

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: AV Industry; Business and Management

Date: August 2012

By Brad Grimes

Ah, youth. It’s a popular subject around the pro-AV industry these days. It comes up in roundtable discussions, conferences and surveys. And depending on who you talk to, it’s the industry’s most prized/important/scarce resource.

Why should AV companies collect youth like it’s a precious metal? Let’s count the reasons:

1. Because you’re not getting younger. Anecdotally speaking (because no one really knows the average age of an AV professional), the old guard that made the AV industry what it is today is graying. Like any company in any industry, you need a new generation of talent to hand the reins to.

2. Because young people tend to be hungrier. Some of them literally. They came out of college thinking sliced hot dogs in their macaroni and cheese was decadent. They’re ready to work hard — often at a price you can afford.

3. Because young people tend to have high energy. Someone has to work those 18-hour days. Let’s face it, AV systems integration has evolved into an intricate professional service, complete with project management issues, client relations and conference calls between parties across the country and around the world. But deadlines are deadlines and there are still only 24 hours in a day.

4. Because your clients are getting younger. Even if young AV professionals were growing on trees, you couldn’t corner the market on youth. Young people also have jobs in the organizations that you sell your services to. Who’s going to connect with those people on a familiar level to help close the sale and see it through to completion?

5. Because your trade partners are getting younger. See No. 4. This is especially important because your trade partners are more diverse than ever before. The architects with whom you need to cooperate? Young. The IT staff at the universities and corporations where you’re installing AV systems? Often young.

6. Because young people know things that you don’t. It’s a common refrain: Young people know about the Interwebs and Twittering, about computers and game systems. They’ve got skills they didn’t even know they had that your company can put to good use.

7. Because young people know what it is you do. They go to concerts. They hook up their parents’ home theater systems. They know what HDMI is and they’re as frustrated as you when they have to wait when switching from HDTV to PS3. They run the sound board at their school productions. They love this stuff, which is the reason you got into pro AV in the first place, too.

But there’s at least one problem. Regarding reason No. 7, young people usually don’t know that they know what you do, because they don’t know who you are. Take it from one young AV professional, who’s now in a position to seek out other young AV professionals to help grow his company.

“I don’t think anyone knows that AV can be a profession, outside of being a roadie or a Geek Squad member,” explains Jay McArdle, CTS-D, CTS-I, and winner of a 2011 Young AV Professionals Award from InfoComm International. “My mom still tells people I install TVs and surround-sound systems. You go to college these days and if you’re interested in technology or electronics, they tell you to go into MIS [management information systems] because you can work with computers and technology. So that’s where young people go.”

McArdle is the lead engineer at Zeller Digital Innovations (Zdi) in Normal, Ill., which was just named an industry leader by Commercial Integrator magazine. The company’s business has doubled, but McArdle is having trouble filling its ranks — whether with techs out of college or young AV engineers with some experience under their belts.

“We’re spread thin,” he says. “We’re looking for new talent and we can’t find it. There’s not a big enough pool of trained engineers to call on right now.”

So he’s gotten creative. He’s hired an electrical engineer and trained that person to get his CTS. Next up is his CTS-D. He’s also hired a software engineer. But, he says, they’re both a couple years away from where he needs them to be. Zdi also handles security and structured cabling projects, so McArdle’s taken a journeyman data-cable-puller and started putting him through CTS training. The company has joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and been to engineering training conferences in hopes of finding young talent.

“But we’ve had no luck,” he says. And when Zdi asks around for leads from other AV companies, “The response we’re getting is, ‘If you find anyone good, send them our way, because we can’t find anyone either.’”

Attracting Talent

Joseph Legato, CTS-D, CTS-I, vice president of operations at USIS Audiovisual and a 2010 Young AV Professionals Award winner, has seen first-hand the effect that young employees can have on AV companies. Now he’s in a position to evaluate talent.

“Having age diversity in project teams is exciting,” he says. “You have youth learning from veterans and veterans learning from youth and the energy they bring to the table. Energy levels in youth—you can’t replace that. If someone has the drive and the energy, you can teach them to work in AV.”

It can be a balancing act, Legato says. “When it comes to deadlines and deliverables, you sometimes get resistance from veterans. They’re not always used to being under such time constraints. In the past half-dozen years, project schedules have been accelerating. There are a lot of hard deadlines pressed on people. A lot of veterans are the most talented people, from an engineering and technical standpoint. So they’re always put on the complex jobs with young techs or PMs. The gap there at times is challenging, but it really brings the best out of a project team.”

Finding those young AV techs in metropolitan New York, where USIS AV is based, may be easier than in Normal, Ill., where McArdle and Zdi operate, but there’s still no assembly line of ready-made talent. Legato says many of the young AV techs he sees come out of the residential systems market. “You’ll also see good young people come out of car audio with a good electronics background,” he explains. “They have the understanding of signal flow and audio.”

What about high school and college? How do you identify candidates who’ve not yet entered the workforce?

They’re there, Legato says, but they aren’t easy to find. “Maybe they learned AutoCAD and understand signal flow. If so, they can come in and be successful,” he says. “And the best thing about someone like that — no bad habits.”

Educating AV Youth

The biggest challenge in establishing a pool of young, trained, talented AV professionals remains the pipeline itself. Again, the veteran generation built this industry because they loved AV, not because they got a degree in AV systems.

“When I talk to young people in some of the classes I teach, I find they’ve literally fallen into the industry,” says Jim Maltese, CTS-D, CTS-I, president of Audio Visual Resources and winner of one of the first Young AV Professionals Awards, in 2009. “They met someone, or they were working on a car, or the just got out of the armed forces and they knew someone who had a decent job and they fell in love with AV. I haven’t heard of anyone coming out of college saying, ‘I want to do AV.’”

To many, that’s an issue.

“Until we can get the CTS curriculum into universities, we won’t be able to attract enough young professionals,” says McArdle. “You’ll always be looking at people who think of AV as a vocation and not a profession.”

To be fair, there are colleges and other educational institutions that are teaching AV, but perhaps not enough of them. And exactly what they’re teaching may not be reflective of the pro-AV industry in the 21st century. When McArdle’s alma mater asked him to teach its AV program and handed him the text book they use, it was a dated industry publication on home networking and theater.

“I told them, ‘You’re teaching people to aspire to work for Best Buy. You’re teaching them to cut speakers into walls, to do basic home RF systems, and surround sound.’ The book didn’t even mention digital video technology,” McArdle says.

Maltese says he knows of community colleges in New York that are teaching InfoComm CTS material. “That’s the perfect place to do it because kids at that stage are still in the mindset of studying and taking tests,” he says.

And the fact that it’s CTS training is significant. Call it the law of unintended consequences, but as the AV industry has grown in prominence, and CTS has become a training standard through its ANSI accreditation, it’s raised the bar for skilled AV workers. Young, eager car audiophiles may be just what certain AV companies need to help fill their ranks. But young, CTS-certified AV professionals are increasingly in demand, which might explain some companies’ lament over the lack of “qualified” candidates.

McArdle says CTS requirements are written into many of the job specs his company fields. This is great for the industry as a whole because it means clients are recognizing the legitimacy of a trained workforce that delivers quality solutions and services. But it also means more young professionals need CTS training. To date, it has fallen to AV companies themselves to identify talent and train them to earn their CTS. McArdle has spoken with colleges about teaching CTS and InfoComm courses—and he’s drawn some interest—but getting colleges to fund new programs as something more than vocational training will take time.

Meanwhile, CTS training is getting out to aspiring young AV professionals, albeit through a variety of different programs. In addition to the training that InfoComm University itself offers on a regular basis—online and in Fairfax, Va., — there are initiatives like the new AV Heroes program, which trains military veterans on audiovisual systems, and InfoComm’s CTS training through IATSE to stage hands and other live events professionals (“Stage hands are great sources of young talent,” say Maltese.).

Think Differently

Just remember that if a steady stream of trained, qualified young AV professionals started flowing tomorrow, AV companies need to be ready. Gina Sansivero, partner at Projector Lamp Services and a 2011 Young AV Professionals Award winner, scours Craigslist for AV techs and for sales reps because she understands the online habits of the different employees she’s looking to hire. She also understands that many of today’s youth approach their jobs differently and she has to be sensitive to that if she’s to retain the best young workers.

“They really want to enjoy their jobs,” she says. “Making money is almost secondary. They’re very experience-centric. And pro AV is in the business of creating experiences — we need to be using that to attract young people.”

Sansivero also recommends that AV companies embrace alternative work styles to attract and keep young employees, whether it’s flexible schedules or telecommuting.

And get involved. Young AV professionals aren’t going to knock on your door just because you hope they will or because you post job ads online. Optimism and a good job post are very important, but so are networking, brainstorming, mentoring and more. And if you’re already a young AV professional, sharing your experiences and insights can only elevate the entire industry.

InfoComm has started a Young AV Professionals community online. Join the conversation today.