Mississippi's ACE Power to offer fiber technician training programMississippi's ACE Power to offer fiber technician training program
ACE Power will offer the Fiber Broadband Association's OpTIC Path course later this year to train new and existing employees for a fiber expansion project.
October 4, 2022
By some estimates, the US is expected to deploy 1.6 million miles of fiber infrastructure over the next five years, fueled in part by government investments in broadband networks. But the speed at which they'll roll out will depend on service providers having enough trained workers ready to build fiber networks.
That's where the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) sees its new OpTIC Path fiber technician training program fitting in. OpTIC Path is a 144-hour certification course, comprising 60% hands-on training and 40% knowledge-based learning, designed to teach how to install, test and maintain fiber networks. The FBA is partnering with community colleges and learning institutions to offer the course and today announced Alcorn County Electric Power Association (ACE Power), a Mississippi electric co-op and broadband provider, as the first employer to offer it.
Brandon Curry, a network engineer at ACE Power, told Light Reading that he heard about OpTIC Path when it debuted at the Fiber Broadband Association's Fiber Connect conference last year.
"I'm like, 'This is what we need'," he said.
The Alcorn County, Mississippi, co-op, which delivers broadband to roughly 6,700 customers, will kick off the program later this year to train new and existing employees as it prepares to start construction to expand its fiber network into the city of New Albany, in partnership with New Albany Light Gas and Water (NALGW). For that, the co-op expects to hire an additional four to six technicians, he said.
Curry is also helping kick off the OpTIC Path program at nearby Northeast Mississippi Community College (NEMCC) and is looking toward that partnership as a way to maintain ACE Power's talent ranks as well.
"Not only will we have the college to lean on to go hire people from, but if we hire someone direct ... we can start the class going here," said Curry.
While ACE Power is the first employer to offer the program, the FBA says it is "now offered or in consideration" at 40 colleges, learning institutions and employers in 32 states and two other countries. The group, which advocates for the fiber broadband industry, recently announced that OpTIC Path will be offered at Louisiana's Bossier Parish Community College, as well as NEMCC.
In addition to learning institutions, the FBA enlists local ISP partners to support the course offerings by providing equipment – such as OTDRs, fusion splicers and cables – and serving as instructors. According to Deborah Kish, vice president of research and workforce development at the FBA, the group charges a "very low" per-student license fee for access to the program.
The OpTIC Path program initially launched with a pilot course in March, in partnership with Greenlight Community Broadband and Wilson Community College in North Carolina. Nine students enrolled, eight stayed enrolled and all eight graduated on May 18th.
Of that inaugural class, two have since landed jobs.
"One was pulled into the workforce into Greenlight like two days after graduating because straight line winds came through the area and knocked down like 20 poles. So, there were a lot of people without their Internet," said Kish. The other student who found employment was their "18-year-old poster child," she said.
Depending on how instructors break up the 144-hour course, trainees can be field ready in six to eight weeks. For safety reasons ("you're dealing with very small, tiny glass," said Kish), the FBA recommends no more than 12 students per program.
According to ACE Power's Curry, the appeal of OpTIC Path is that it goes deeper than similar programs, making it accessible to trainees who are new to fiber. So someone could go from "not knowing what fiber is to being able to splice it and splice mainline and do it the correct way," said Curry.
That matters, because "fiber kind of scares a lot of people," he said. "You don't know what you don't know. And so this is a way to give someone that."
Indeed, according to Kish, the biggest challenges that the FBA is facing with the program are finding enough instructors and generating interest in the field of work.
"I don't think that we did a good job as an industry to keep this occupation or this career at the, you know, bubbled up to the surface. So, we lost out to things like coding," she said. "So there's this long group of individuals that have no idea that there's a really good career in telco."
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