How Operators Can Build a Stable Workforce

Q&A with Wayne Apllehans, Jones NCTI The intensity of competition, constant increase in the services being offered and growing sophistication of subscribers means that cable personnel at all levels are more stressed - and more valuable - than ever before. At the same time, the industry has a long way to go in training staff, making them feel enfranchised and rewarding them.

In November, Jones/NCTI released a survey that highlighted the challenges and pointed to a path forward. President and Chief Product Officer Wayne Applehans discussed the survey and the broader issues it raises with Broadband Technology Report Senior Editor Carl Weinschenk. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

BTR: What is the background on the study?

Applehans: Three things have happened in the last couple of months. We conducted a roundtable at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Denver. A number of our MSO clients came in, and we discussed a number of topics, including retention and the challenges around not only recruitment but retention of their workforces.


The second is that we set out on a good will tour. We sat down with learning and development leaders of a number the larger operators in North America. We listened and talked about challenges with consolidation and technology advancements and the question of how they can at the same time recruit and retain a workforce that grows into a sustainable workforce.

And in normal sales process started to dig into finding out why learning and training are important to these organizations. We were forming hypotheses about the value of learning and education in the broadband industry.

BTR: How widespread was the survey?

Applehans: It went to 20,000 people and had a 5% return, or 1,000 responses.

BTR: What did you find?

Applehans: We asked straightforward questions: Why do you want to stay with your organization? Where is your motivation? What compels you to stay engaged?

Those questions led to them providing us with insights in three areas emphasized in the white paper: The importance of a defined career path, the importance of the individual feeling proficient and productive on the on job, and the desire to be compensated for professional certifications, such as those from Jones/NCTI, Cisco and SCTE.

BTR: How does that jive with what they actually are experiencing?

Applehans: Fewer than half felt they were receiving increases that are tied to certification. That’s a bit of insight.

BTR: What are some of the other highlights?

Applehans: There were three dimensions that the team was able to glean from the data. The first is that eight out of 10 of those surveyed said that a clearly defined career path supports their desire to stay with their current company and creates a sense of loyalty. This was one of the top findings: Techs, call center, mid managers and other folks feel if there is a defined career path, it feeds desire to stay with company. If the respondent feels that the path is bigger than the job they are in and if the employee has a journey - a road map - it generates more loyalty.

A big part of that is that our parents and generations before maybe had pension plans, retirement healthcare benefits. We learned those things are not necessarily there for the generation coming into the workforce. We are therefore finding that a career path and lateral or upward mobility is really important in making the decision that there is a career at that company. That makes it worthwhile it to stick it out for the next six to 18 months crawling under a trailer to install cable in North Dakota.

BTR: What was the next finding?

Applehans: The second was that 90% of folks said that it is really important that they feel proficient and productive on the job. When they feel proficient  and productive, that builds loyalty. Interestingly, about half said they are not getting enough training. Ninety percent said they want to feel proficient and productive, and if they do, they would feel a sense of loyalty, but half said they aren’t getting the training they need. There is a gap there.

BTR: To what do you attribute the gap?

Applehans: A lot of operators are updating their systems and converting to digital and things like that. A lot of the capital spent on upgrading technology may be pulling away from investments being made in people and organizations, so they may be falling behind on taking care of their folks in terms of training.

BTR: And the third takeaway?

Applehans: We asked about compensation tied to continuing education and certification. Roughly seven out of 10 reported bonuses and pay increases tied to achievement of professional certifications is very important when determining if they stay or look elsewhere, but fewer than half said they are receiving increases tied to that certification. They may be getting the continuing education and career enrichment, but may not be getting compensation tied to that additional work.

If an operator has a clearly defined path and they invest in building productivity and proficiency in the worker [during] the first six to 18 months of employment and they are rewarding via compensation such as a 25-cent per hour increase or a bonus or stipend, we are finding you have a much more loyal employee. You can get through that retention curve dropoff and ultimately create a better customer experience in the marketplace.

BTR: If you advise a typical operator to change one thing, what would it be?

Applehans: The one thing we do tell operators - and now the data supports it, before it was hypothetical - is that typically when we talk to organizations’ leaders, we emphasize getting that career path defined for their employees. That is the No. 1 thing we lead with. You’ve got to think through the way a person progresses through the organization.

The point for the organization is that it really pays dividends to have a defined path for these individuals and really to get away from accidental spending on training. You want to articulate what that the career path is and build some sort of compensation or recognition or reward system through that career path. That builds retention through the onboarding process through the critical first 18 months of employment. Operators probably today have double-, sometimes triple-digit turnover in first six to 18 months. That’s very costly.

BTR: It all seems to be common sense. What is the industry doing now?

Applehans: I think it’s changing the awareness. We are at a point where we are seeing customer satisfaction at its low for a number of operators. They are struggling with retention. The technology is changing rapidly. You can’t continue to 'churn and burn' employees. I think they’re elevating their understanding to ways of creatively addressing that.

BTR: Is any resistance just inertia, or are there more substantial objections?

Applehans: Initially it’s costs if [the operator]’s never done it, if previously there only was accidental spending on learning. Asking them to put a formal program in place and investing it that ... costs money. Operators may be accidentally spending $30,000 per year on 150 techs on training when the budget should be more like $100,000 to $120,000. So they see that jump from $30,000, that delta of $90,000 to get where they really need to be. Looking at it from a zero-based budgeting process, that’s a huge leap. You have to start with baby steps; it definitely ties back to cost and definitely ties back to culture.

BTR: Are you developing a real return on investment - ROI - model?

Applehans: We are working on a model with some of our operators as we speak. The approach we are taking is tying customer experience and retention - both customer and employee retention - back to training. The next level of this research that will be a lot more sophisticated. It will be to prove that more tenured employees who have been invested in in terms of their career and rewarded for that correlate to a better customer experience.

We’ve spoken with operators with higher customer satisfaction metrics. You culturally see it and feel it. Internal loyalty is going to drive customer advocacy. Those are the data points we are setting out to prove in this research. I think we will.

BTR: So there will be an actual equation to present to doubting operators?

Applehans: There is tremendous data today that allows you to drill down to the primary pain points around repeat truck rolls and a number of service issues. For instance, the issues around selling WiFi in the home, making sure all devices work when the techs leaves. The cost of a repeat truck roll varies according to market. Imagine if it is $100 to $200 dollars per truck roll. If you invest $150,000 in training, it wouldn’t take that many repeat truck rolls to make up that training budget.

That doesn’t even account for customers lost because of quality or repeat install issues. If you align that with the commercial side where the risk of losing a commercial customer would cost more, it’s very plausible that within several months we will be able to come up with model that shows the impact for saving money and retaining customers and employees.

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