The Skills Gap

May 30, 2017

Television broadcasting today is being redefined in the age of mobile, OTT and viewer expectations. In parallel with these developments has been the changing human resource element at station operations. It’s not just the disappearance of well-trained RF engineers who have reached retirement age that is threatening the basic functioning of the local TV station; just having personnel knowledgeable about the requirements of ensuring audio and video quality in an IP-SDI hybrid environment and maintaining functioning and efficient electronic newsgathering services is becoming ever more challenging.

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This is nothing new; organizations such as SMPTE, NAB, IABM and SBE—which created the “Certified Broadcast Networking Engineer” qualification five years ago in response—have been debating the issue for years.

But now it’s become among the most talked-about issues of our industry and was the primary factor for the name change behind one of the most popular draws of the NAB Show, the Broadcast Engineering Conference, which this year was renamed the “Broadcast Engineering and Information Technology Conference.”

“The need for broadcast engineers to be IT-literate has been growing fast over the last decade, so it’s nothing new,” said Skip Pizzi, vice president, technology education and outreach for the NAB. “It’s now arguably become equal in importance to ‘traditional’ technologies for broadcast operations, and our conference’s presentations have gradually reflected this, so we felt it was high time to recognize that explicitly in the overall identity of the BEITC.”

TV Technology has published several articles recently about the changes taking place, articles that elicited strong responses from our readers.

In his article “Broadcast Faces a Coming Crisis,” Sherrod Munday, vice president of engineering for Sky Angel, expounded on the challenges stations face in hiring engineers trained in both video and IT technologies. He identifies the “daunting trifecta”: current engineers lack skills in IP-centric infrastructure; older engineers are approaching retirement; and many college graduates lack the interest to enter broadcast engineering fields.

Integrating broadcast and IP technologies is the wave of the future in our industry, from capture to distribution, but “for all the benefits the internet protocol offers to broadcasters, it requires a new set of knowledge and troubleshooting skills that many legacy broadcast engineers don’t historically hold,” Munday said. “Let’s be honest, broadcast engineering just doesn’t hold the glamour it use to before the recent explosion of technology… sure there are some young people interested in broadcasting—but when they find out how much it pays vs. the starting salary for other technical jobs like computer programming, broadcasting often doesn’t stand a chance.”

Munday’s recommendation is obvious: Increase starting salaries for engineers, but it will not go down too well with the bean-counters unless decisionmakers can be persuaded of the value of investing in continuing education. With salaries in traditional broadcast operations lagging IT jobs by an average 20–30 percent (according to SBE), this is a challenge that cannot go unheeded.

Several other articles focusing on the changing roles of the broadcast engineer struck similar chords with our readers. In his commentary “Why Doesn’t Anyone Fix Anything Anymore,” TV Technology’s James O’Neal laments the loss of the “do it yourself” attitude in today’s broadcast facility.

While acknowledging the reality of an increasingly software-based/COTS environment, James says that “removing gear from boxes, racking it up and screwing on connectors just isn’t the same as laying out and punching a chassis, or designing a printed circuit board.” He adds, “I have to admit that ‘store-bought’ is still the best way to go for most of today’s broadcast equipment, but there are still areas open in the broadcast plant open to ‘homemade.’”

Likewise, engineer Steve Johnston wrote in an article that originally appeared in our sister publication Radio World headlined “Why I Support the Right to Repair.” He said the increasingly “closed” nature of systems that broadcasters use makes it more difficult for engineers to make needed repairs, with manuals and even schematics rapidly disappearing. His thoughts reveal an interesting dichotomy about how engineers approach traditional broadcast hardware and the increasing use of software-based IT systems.

“Increasingly in recent years, companies have been unwilling to share basic service literature—even mere schematics—because they claim designs of their products are “proprietary,” Johnston said. “You can forget about these outfits providing the information free to owners; you can’t even buy it!”

Johnston concludes that “access to basic service information is important to our industry. As broadcast engineers, we should be able to decide if a failed device should be repaired or replaced and to what level we will pursue a repair.”

The popular response to these articles is proof that the challenge of adopting next-gen IP technologies into the broadcast plant is of paramount importance to our industry. But more important is how we train and educate the people who will be charged with integrating them—especially for the foreseeable hybrid future where SDI will coexist with IP.

You can read these articles at www.tvtechnology.com/skillsgap.

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