School bell tolls for telecom teaching

Carolyn Kinsman, a graduate of Sheridan College, says her alma mater put her on the right track to succeed in the telecom field. But it seems others aspiring for similar achievement will have to find a different program to give them a strong start.

Kinsman graduated in 1987 from Sheridan’s post-graduate Telecommunications Management program, which teaches students how to handle telecom projects.

She founded Automated Communication Links Inc. (ACL), a consultancy in Oakville, Ont. that applies telecom metering to public utilities.

Kinsman said she wins lucrative gigs in the U.S. She was nominated for the Premier’s Award in 1997, which acknowledges excellence among Ontario college graduates.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Sheridan,” she said.

But Oakville-headquartered Sheridan is shuttering the course that prepped Kinsman for achievement. Gary Closson, Sheridan’s dean of applied computing and engineering sciences, said the school bell tolls for the Telecommunications Management program.

“I think we ran with 12 students in the program last year….There was a time, maybe five or six years ago, when we were taking 30 students in the fall and another 30 in January.”

Closson said the program had been running since the early 1980s. But “it’s very difficult to recruit new students into a program like this…with all the bad press around the telecom industry.”

Sheridan isn’t the only school experiencing problems. Others say it’s tough to entice people into telecom courses.

“We would average, on a per-monthly basis three years ago, 12 to 20 teaching days per month,” said Allan Bly, founder of Telecommunication Sales and Technical Training Inc. (TST) in Edmonton. “Now we’re down to three to five teaching days per month.”

The cloud hanging over the industry may well be keeping people from signing up for telecom training, but the schools aren’t ready to accept this new normal. Some of them are amending their programs to better align academic pursuits with business realities, in an attempt to lure students into the discipline.

Closson said Sheridan is focussing on Information Systems Security, a course scheduled to start next February. “That’s one area in the telecom field where our emphasis is going to be placed,” he said, pointing out that network security is an important aspect of telecom these days.

TST, which trains people already in business, has a new education stream dubbed Telecom Fundamentals. It should “fill the gap between sales forces within a telecom company and the engineering faculty,” Bly said. But he wouldn’t call the latest course a screaming success just yet.

“We don’t have any Fundamentals courses booked. The market isn’t quite ready to spend the money on that fundamental training.”

At Toronto’s Humber College, Louise Bardswich, dean of information technology, said enrolment in the three-year telecom program for high school graduates is down by about 20 per cent compared to last year. Enrolment in the post-graduate program in wireless communication is down by 10 per cent.

But enrolment has doubled in the two-year-old joint program with the University of Guelph, wherein students win a computer science degree and Humber’s telecommunications diploma, suggesting that pupils seek education that is both academic and practical. However, Bardswich did not say if Ontario’s “double cohort” affected the numbers. The province is eliminating one year of secondary school, so twice as many graduates could be applying for university and college spots.

Still, Bardswich said news of layoffs and cutbacks in the telecom sector are “a little bit unfortunate because in fact, we’re finding that the students…are getting jobs. They’re not getting them quite as fast as they used to, but they are getting them.”

Kinsman, the Sheridan alumnus, figures the college should change the Telecommunications Management track, rather than kill it. The school should look at “tertiary markets, not just being a telecom manager in a life insurance building, or working for the telcos. There’s a million areas….Everyone’s using telecom” and “they’re crying for people,” she said.

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