Fiber optics expansion connects North Shore to jobs

Fiber optics expansion connects North Shore to jobs

New Orleans City Business
Maria Clark, Reporter
July 30, 2014
 
Northshore Technical Community College is in the early stages of developing a fiber optics installation component to its information technology program.
 
Telecommunications firms have increasingly turned to fiber optics technology, which uses glass or plastic fibers to transmit data more quickly than traditional copper wiring, as the need for more bandwidth and faster Internet speeds grows. The demand has generated a growing need for trained technicians within this field.
 
IT services firm Core Networks in Covington has hired five technicians from Northshore Technical Community College this year. Company president Ethan Chabert anticipates he will have more job openings for technicians skilled in fiber optics installation and maintenance as competition for these workers increases.
 
“There is a big push, especially in rural areas, to improve Internet connections,” Chabert said. “There are pockets outside of major cities in this state where connectivity is so slow, you’re basically back to dial-up (speeds).”
 
He also noted that the price for fiber optics cables, which can transmit more data quicker than copper wiring, has dropped and added to demand.
 
Federal and state governments have established initiatives to improve Internet access in rural communities. The Federal Communications Commission announced in May it would invest an additional $9 billion from its Connect America Fund to expand broadband communications in rural areas to cover an additional 5 million people.  Approximately $8 million is being directed to rural communities in Louisiana, the agency announced in December.
 
“More people are relying on wireless technology to function,” said Northshore Technical IT instructor Khiem Ngo as he held up his iPhone. He tapped the screen to show how from his classroom he could connect to his air conditioning unit at his house to control the temperature. “As we rely more on gadgets like these, we need more broadband. But especially in rural areas, we are woefully behind in keeping up.”
 
According to the Louisiana Broadband Initiative website, two-thirds of Louisiana households have broadband Internet, which puts it behind the national average of 68 percent. The initiative was put in place to make use of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money dedicated to expanding broadband connections. Its Louisiana broadband map shows a large swath of the New Orleans area still relies on DSL cable connections, which are typically slower than fiber optic.
 
AT&T has made a big hiring push in Louisiana as it continues to increase its fiber optic coverage area. Gulf Coast spokeswoman Sue Sperry said the company is currently hiring for more than 180 openings in Louisiana, including technician and call center employees. Last year, AT&T hired 1,400 new employees in Louisiana.
 
“As AT&T’s business evolves to include more wireless, cloud-based products and services, we need more highly skilled software and network engineers to support the change. We need employees who are ready to work in a competitive and more digital world,” Sperry said.
 
Steve Sawyer, director of public and governmental affairs for Cox Communications, could not reveal the number of positions the company currently has open in Louisiana for technicians, citing competitive reasons.  He said the company provides on-the-job training for technicians, which has helped ward off local competition for workers with this skillset.
 
“It is definitely a very competitive market for work in fiber optics right now,” Sawyer said. “Technicians are about one of our largest hiring pools at the moment.”
 
Wainwright said 24 companies, including AT&T and Cox Communications, have recruited from Northshore Technical’s IT program, with most students graduating to work as technicians or in IT support. The training in fiber optics installation could be added to the IT program next spring, he said.
 
The school, which has campuses in St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes, is also working with local high schools to attract students interested in technical work in high-demand fields such as engineering and computer sciences.
 
Pointing to growth in technology and manufacturing, particularly in rural Louisiana, Wainwright said, “Connectivity is essential as more people move into those areas and industry continues to grow. We have to begin investing in this technology now.”