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Laying the foundations of technical knowledge

The broadcast industry is reportedly facing a technical skills shortage. Trade body the IABM held two training courses in the past week as part of its programme to train personnel for today's broadcast market. Roger Crumpton talks to Kevin Hilton about why the market came to be in this state and the ways out of it.

The UK has a long history of technological innovation, from the days of James Watt and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the pioneers who helped shape our modern, communications-based world, such as John Logie Baird, Alan Turing, Alan Blumlein and Tim Berners-Lee. Despite being intensely proud of their nation’s past achievements, most Britons tend not to particularly admire or revere engineers, academics or scientists. As the media age has worn on, the focus has been increasingly on what goes on in front of the camera, despite changing technologies bringing digital transmission, high definition pictures and surround sound. In the UK, the deregulation of the broadcast market that began with the 1990 Broadcasting Act has continued and led to a fragmentation of the business. This has led to more out-sourcing of technical services, including transmission and play-out, and seen engineering departments at major broadcasters shrink in size. The training department within the BBC is now smaller and there is no comparable in the independent sector any more; the Independent Broadcasting Authority and broadcasters like Thames Television were known for producing highly skilled engineers but are now long gone. Because of this doubts have grown over where the new generation of engineers will come from. There is also the natural process of older engineers retiring or dying, with no readily identifiable successors. But the situation is not seen as irreversible. “It’s not as though we’re looking for another 5000 engineers, just in the region of 200,” observes Roger Crumpton (pictured), who is heading up the new training initiative by the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers (IABM). Crumpton says there has been “a complete culture change in the industry”, with the general view that “engineering talent is not as important as creative talent”. Formerly chief executive of the IABM, Crumpton was appointed the Association’s director of education, employment, and training after discussions with member companies highlighted concerns about a lack of core audio and video skills among younger technical staff. To address this the IABM has established a Training Academy and created a Life Long Learning Manifesto, which it wants manufacturers, broadcasters and other organisations to sign up to. Among those that have done so is Skillset, the skills and training body for the creative industries in the UK. “Emerging technologies, new business models and changing social trends are creating new business and career opportunities within the broadcast industry,” comments Crumpton. “But they are also revealing a chronic shortage of skilled technical resources. Employers need a resource for developing and training their workforce to meet the challenges of the new media business.” In an attempt to lay the foundations for this resource, the IABM Training Academy has drawn up a series of instruction programmes, including classroom sessions run by instructors and online learning classes that allow students to work at their own speed. The first of the face-to-face classes was held last week in the UK with Broadcast and Media Technology – Understanding your Industry, an introduction for people working in the business who do not have technical knowledge. That was followed this week by Audio and Video Fundamentals for Engineers, designed for those with grounding in electronics or software but not necessarily broadcast sound or vision. Both seminars will be held again in the Netherlands; the first from 29th to 30th September and the second from 5th to 6th October. The two will return to the UK from 29th to 30th November. Crumpton says he was “thrilled” with the outcome of the first two sessions but that there is more to do. The next two programmes in the series will be announced during the autumn and more subjects will be added. The Audio and Video Fundamentals for Engineers course was, Crumpton explains, designed to give both sides of the broadcast technology world – sound and vision. But, he adds, a “significant” part of the two days was given over to audio. “And so it should be,” he concludes.