Integrators take up the training challenge
By Peter Caulfield
Technological change is both an opportunity and a challenge, especially to the system integrators on the front line.
By Peter Caulfield
The impact is being felt not only by integrators in the big cities, where you would expect it, but also by those in smaller communities far from the country’s population centres — such as Port Alberni, B.C,, a dot on the map of Vancouver Island.
“The industry is changing, and what’s possible is changing,” says Mark Aussem, president of Alberni Technology Solutions Inc. “Everything is IP-based these days and uses Cat 5 cabling. It makes things easier, but it’s different, and you have to learn how to do it. And your employees need constant training so they learn how to do it, too.”
Canadian integrators have responded differently to the challenge of training in the digital age. The ways in which they have reacted have depended in part on their size. For example, Mitchel Kuijper, of Vortechs Electronics Design Ltd., which has only three employees, says he likes to see his employees take some initiative for their own training.
“I like to give them an opportunity to participate in their own growth,” said the CEO of the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based company.
Kuijper says most of the systems Vortechs installs are complicated and require a lot of time to install, program and integrate. Because Vortechs is a small company, Kuijper himself is responsible for picking up and dropping off supplies, client liaison, project management and equipment programming, and his workers do the installation.
To complement a long-standing personal aptitude for electronics, Kuijper received formal training in the field at community colleges on Vancouver Island and in Greater Vancouver.
“If any of my staff show a personal interest, I’ll give them training in the more technical aspects of electronics,” Kuijper says.
Otherwise, his employees receive training in specific types of equipment from distributors and manufacturers, either online or in person.
“At least once a month, Vortechs receives a notice from one of our vendors for a training session somewhere in the Lower Mainland,” he says. “Distributors especially are always offering training of some kind.”
Roger Barnes, president of Roger’s Security Systems Inc., a Honeywell dealer in Burlington, Ont., says his eight employees all receive new product training and refresher courses during the year from Honeywell. In addition, they also receive health, safety and WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) training from their largest customer, Melloul-Blamey Construction of Waterloo, Ont.
Barnes himself attends Honeywell conventions, where, he says, he learns a lot about equipment and industry trends.
“I’ll spend three days in the classroom, and I’ll pick up a lot of knowledge, which I then bring back and share with my employees,” he says.
Barnes says time and money spent on staff training has paid off for his company. “First of all, more training means we have fewer service calls to deal with,” he said. “And well-trained technicians mean they can show our customers how to correctly set their alarms, which reduces the incidence of false alarms.”
Barnes says staff training and education will become increasingly important in the future in the security industry.
“Technology is advancing so quickly, and it is necessary to stay on top of it in order to compete,” he says.
Barnes says, where training is concerned, his company’s small size works to its advantage.
“Because we are small compared to many of our competitors, it is easier for us to keep up on all the technological changes and adapt quickly to them,” he says.
Like Vortechs and Roger’s Security, Alberni Technology Solutions is small, with only nine employees. Aussem says all of the company’s employees receive training “of some sort.”
“Ninety per cent of the training is vendor training, from distributors and manufacturers,” he says.
Aussem says most of this training consists of one- or two-day courses. And because Port Alberni is small and out of the way, all the training takes place somewhere else in B.C., for example, in Kelowna, Victoria, Vancouver or one of its suburbs where high-tech distributors like to set up. If a trip out of province for training is required, to a convention in Las Vegas, for example, Aussem will go himself.
ATS is growing quickly and hiring new staff regularly. Some of the employees arrive at the company with a high school diploma, while others have a diploma from one of the technical schools in B.C. Aussem says he is often required to teach new hires how to think methodically through a problem.
“It seems that most teaching these days is just the facts,” he says. “They don’t teach students how to think, so that’s something I do on the job. That and workplace safety.”
Despite Port Alberni’s isolation, Aussem says, he finds it easy to keep abreast of changes in the industry, which he passes on to his staff as mentoring.
“Every manufacturer and distributor sends us regular press releases,” he says. “And we read SP&T News. None of this is hard, but it takes time.”
Aussem says ATS, founded in 2008, comes to the security industry from the IT side, which gives it an advantage over its competitors.
“Companies that started on the analogue side have more catch-up to do,” he says.
Unlike Vortechs, Roger’s Security and ATS, Cobra Integrated Systems is a large company, as independent Canadian security integrators go. Cobra has 65 employees in eight offices — three in B.C.’s Lower Mainland (including the Burnaby head office), Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
Scott Knutsen, co-CEO and director of sales and engineering, says the company undertakes large projects involving very elaborate network systems.
“Because technology in the type of work we do changes quickly and constantly, we need to spend time and money on staff training if we’re to stay competitive and continue to grow,” he says.
Cobra, Knutsen adds, provides regular training in project management, installation, and service and sales, most of which takes place in-house.
“Cobra has grown quickly in a short time,” he says. “When we realized the company couldn’t continue to do training on an ad hoc, as-needed basis, we decided to hire a full-time corporate trainer.”
The in-house training takes place in the Burnaby head office’s 15-seat training room, where sessions are practical and concentrate on applications for products the company sells, installs and services.
“There’s training going on here all the time,” Knutsen said.
In addition, staff attend vendor training seminars and take part in training webinars.
As an incentive to its staff, Cobra provides a career path for job-grade targets, including bonuses for professional certificates.
The payoff for all this attention to staff training, says Knutsen, is that it enables the company to remain a leader in an industry that is becoming more complex all the time.
“It costs us money to have an ignorant installer,” he says. “Attention to training means we have fewer problems to deal with.”
Knutsen says he hopes his competitors train their employees just as diligently as Cobra does.
“If we’re all competing on competence and service, you don’t have to worry about losing business because you’re under-bid by a less experienced company that competes on price,” he says. “It makes for a level playing field.”
Like Cobra, ProTELEC Alarms in Winnipeg (with offices in Brandon and Calgary) has a full-time corporate trainer. General manager Rial Black says all of the company’s 100 employees receive training “in some form or another.”
Black says new hires receive an orientation package that, like all of the training curricula used by the company, was developed in-house.
“What we look for in new staff is a positive attitude, especially toward our customers,” he says. “The right attitude is what’s most important, and that can’t be trained. We can impart the technical knowledge if our employees have the enthusiasm we’re looking for.”
In addition to in-house training, technical and operator staff also receive training from CANASA. And there is ongoing product training from vendors.
Black says training at ProTELEC uses both visual and verbal media.
“People learn differently,” he says. “The younger staff are used to, and like, learning online, while other people like to read paper and flip pages.”
Black says the job of keeping all his staff trained and up to date has become more difficult as his company has grown.
“We are spending more and more time and money on training now, and we expect to spend even more in the future,” he says.
Nevertheless, training is worth it, he says.
“Training improves our service, which enables us to differentiate us from our competitors, because we all sell similar products,” he says. “The time and money we spend on training ensures we continue to deliver quality service. If our customers are happy, we continue to grow. Investment in training goes directly to our bottom line.”