Between mergers and outsourcing, many technical workers in today’s highly connected information economy face real challenges to job security. Whether that is as much the case with cable companies as it is with telcos or the larger IT workforce, however, is an open question. At least for the largest MSO in town, last week’s fifth annual Comcast CommTech Jeopardy event presents evidence that the cable industry still needs—and will reward—employees who display hard work, initiative and smarts. Before reviewing the Comcast event, however, let’s look at some of the unsettling trends. As a rule, mergers translate into layoffs. When announced a year ago, for instance, executives responsible for the merger of SBC Communications and AT&T promised the elimination of some 13,000 jobs. That truism applies to cable, too, and explains some of the free-floating anxiety that has emanated from (especially mid-level) Adelphia employees as Time Warner Cable and Comcast divvy up those assets. Outsource or train As for the larger pool of IT workers, the common perception that many are in unstable if not precarious situations was backed up last week by a survey from the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which indicates that 60 percent of IT professionals are currently looking for new jobs. Why are they looking? This week’s news that Dell is hiring 5,000 workers in India presents one reason. Knock on the door of any in-house IT shop in North America and you’re likely to find workers who feel overworked and under-appreciated, yet who also realize that they may be less competitive than their overseas counterparts. The threat of being outsourced motivates some of this job searching, but another explanation comes from Neill Hopkins, VP of Skills Development at CompTIA, who said in a release that tech employees may want to change jobs because "employers are not taking a more aggressive role in setting priorities when it comes to continuing education and re- training of their IT workers." While the CompTIA survey did not cover cable, Hopkins’s point that workers tend to stay where employers collaborate in their ongoing education and training is applicable and leads to a quick review of this year’s Comcast CommTech Jeopardy finals, held last week in Charleston, S.C. The Comcast example Behind this corporate event were numerous teams of Comcast "CommTechs" who began training and competing at the regional level four or five months ago. The divisional tournaments concluded in December, leading to the last week’s finals. Or as the hyped-up event’s mantra put it: "Five Teams, Two Days: One Trophy." Those competing for the Dan Aaron Trophy in Charleston, SC, included the Oregon Gore-Techs, the Minnesota 1080i’s, the New England North Node-it-Alls, the Tucson Venom and the Nashville City Players. As these five teams come from among a self-selected group of the most talented and ambitious of Comcast’s technical workforce, they are something other than a random sample. A Comcast customer is more likely to encounter a technician with a high-school diploma (or equivalent) and restaurant experience than someone with the unusual background of Brian Jeans, for example, who was making a return appearance this year with the 1080i’s. Jeans’s background includes study of international economics in college and work for several years thereafter as a crew chief in mineral exploration. That’s a unique but logical-enough lead into a cable career that Jeans calls a good "compromise between field work and something that’s intellectually stimulating." It’s not ‘academic’ The intellect on display was impressive. "They study a lot of material in preparation," said Comcast VP Engineering Wayne Hall, who served as chief of a three-judge panel that reviewed close calls. But as special as this group of finalists may be, the game’s questions are not merely "academic" but rather reflect on the complex varieties of technologies that cable technical employees, across the board, face day to day. The Gore-Techs, last year’s runners-up who prevailed over the Nashville team this year on the final question about the OSI seven-layer reference model, are not only Jeopardy teammates, but also cohorts on the job. "We’re the ‘noise patrol,’" said David Reheer, indicating the kind of the practical issues that his team is otherwise tracks back in Oregon. A four-year Comcast employee who got his technical start in Australia, Reheer said that shifting from QPSK modulation to 16-QAM in particular required new practices. "The old tricks weren’t working so well," he said. "The fixes were simple, but getting to the fixes was the hard part." That there is a blurred line between getting to those "fixes" and winning a competition is one reason this event shines as an example of how to motivate, train and (one hopes) retain a technical workforce. Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, who was on hand (with his father) to congratulate the teams and their supporters, put it this way to his employees: "You can have fun—and at the same time we’re all better for having fun." – Jonathan Tombes

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