DISTURBING TREND: Where are all the radio engineers?

| September 5, 2013

By Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB
Tom Ray Consulting
President
TALKERS
Technical Editor

NEW YORK — Being that Labor Day has just passed, I was thinking about a disturbing conversation I had with a colleague last week.  He is an Engineer and had been looking for an assistant.  I noted recently that he was no longer running his ad and assumed he filled the position.

He and I had occasion to chat the other evening.  I asked how his new assistant was working out – and who he found.  His response?  “I pulled the ad because I could not find anyone!  There is no one out there!!”  He ended up hiring someone with IT skills who had an electronics background and is training him.

This tends to be a trend in the industry – a disturbing one.  If there are no engineers, who will be taking care of our broadcast facilities?

I think there are many reasons for the lack of persons in the engineering portion of the industry, and I will speculate on these reasons shortly.  But I’d like to invite you, particularly if you are an engineer, to send me a note at tomray@tomrayconsulting.com and tell me why, in your opinion (or in your experience), we have a shortage of technical personnel.

As I said – I can think of many reasons.

First and foremost, the pay is not up to par for the skill set required in today’s broadcast facility.  I watch the “help wanted” section of several websites.  The pay ranges listed are abysmal at best.  Here is a partial listing of the skill set a person needs in today’s broadcast facility: the ability to repair a transmitter from the 1950s to today’s models (and that is a huge technology difference!); the ability to analyze and repair analog audio consoles; the ability to analyze and repair digital audio consoles; the ability to analyze and repair IP based audio consoles; the ability to diagnose, repair and maintain an AM directional antenna system; an understanding of turntables, tape machines, CD players and hard disk based computer playback and recording systems (another huge technology difference); the ability to manage a budget and personnel; the ability to handle video, both standard def and high def; the ability to repair computers; you must know most flavors of the Windows operating system, from 3.1 to Windows 8; the ability to troubleshoot software; the ability to set up and maintain a computer network; the ability to set up and maintain web servers including email; you must have an understanding of building construction; you must be able to do basic plumbing; you must be able to do basic electrical and/or oversee and question an electrician who is doing work for the station.  And the list goes on.

Oh.  Add to the list that you have the privilege of being on call 24/7/365 for any reason – forget the fact that an emergency should be defined as the station is off the air or a studio has completely failed.  Many get called because a sink is stopped up – at 2 in the morning!

And in most markets, that skill set is worth $30,000 to $60,000 according to the ads I’ve seen.

Something is wrong when the executive assistant in many stations earns more than the chief engineer.  In many markets, this is not a living wage and does not match the skills required.

Other reasons?  The fact that, in many facilities, the engineer gets no respect.  He gets pulled away for mundane tasks better left to an intern – then gets chewed out because a project did not get completed on time.  He’s told to go unstop a toilet.  Or cut the grass.  Or shovel snow.  You get the picture. Not that this is beneath any of us, but there are better ways we can spend our time keeping the programming flowing to the listeners.

In many stations, the engineer is solely responsible for keeping his skills up to date.  That means he attends classes, SBE meetings and other events to keep his skills fresh on his own time and on his own dime.  How many sales people have had to attend a sales seminar on their own time or dime lately?  When was the last time you sent your engineer to NAB or gave them time off in the afternoon to attend an SBE meeting?  I know far too many engineers that take vacation time to do both.  These are business functions, not goofing off time.

Enough with the grousing, though.  Because of the shortage, there are stations hiring IT people and sending them to the transmitter site.  Sure, many things at the transmitter are IT based these days.  But the output of the transmitter and the antenna system isn’t.  These people are untrained at working around high voltage and RF.  Someone is eventually going to get badly hurt or killed because they do not know how to work around high voltage and current.

And with high school and college kids today, perhaps radio is not intriguing enough.  I do meet the occasional high school or college kid that has an interest – but they are few and far between.  For many, their exposure was through a friend or a family member who is an amateur radio operator.  And the magic of radio and the radio bug grabs them.  But for many I talk to, they have no desire to be on call, to crawl around in swampy fields after hours, to service transmitters that can kill them, not to mention the fact that one can encounter a snake or other creepy crawly thing walking into the door of the transmitter building.

These are the things that those of us in Engineering do every day.  Maybe we’re just strange, but we enjoy it.

Maybe it’s the fact that, with station clusters and reduced technical budgets these days, there is no longer a “farm team” system.  It used to be, you could start at a 500 watt or 1000 watt daytimer and experience every job in the industry.  This doesn’t happen any longer.  Without a farm team, there is no one on deck.  Could this be part of the problem?

And I’m serious.  Why do you think there is a shortage of engineers?  I’d like to hear from you.  First, the information could start a series of columns that help us all.  Second, I have been elected to the Board of Directors of the Society of Broadcast Engineers.  This is a consistent topic for the Board.  I would like to be able to bring some real life comments to the table to see if perhaps we can help.

I hope to hear from you soon.

tbugk

Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB is president of Tom Ray Consulting and Technical Editor of TALKERS. He can be phoned at 845-418-5065 or emailed at tomray@tomrayconsulting.com.  His website is www.tomrayconsulting.com

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Category: Technical