A Good Engineer Is Hard To Find… For TV Anyway.

I was recently talking with a sales rep I deal with and we got on the topic of the aging TV engineering workforce.  He told me a rather depressing story about a recent SBE chapter meeting in his area where one of the old timers started poking fun at a couple  younger members who were working on their Mac laptops and had iPhones – apparently he felt that broadcast engineering was PC only which just shows how out of touch this guy is.  The upshot here is that these were interested young technical professionals who just came to a broadcast engineering meeting to learn something new only to be berated by someone who probably won’t be in the business very much longer.  What incentive do these young men have for returning to the next meeting when one of the people that should be passing the torch is instead using it to burn bridges?

Recently, a broadcast publication, TV Technology, published an overdue article lamenting the fact that well trained, or at least interested, young technical talent is hard to find and even harder to retain in the broadcast engineering field.  If you need proof, just stop by the annual Society of Broadcast Engineers member’s meeting that goes on every year during NAB – you’ll walk in and see a lot of gray and balding heads (mine will be in there too).

In the article James Careless goes on to list several key elements that could be used to lure attract entice interest fresh faces to the field of broadcast engineering:

  • Emphasize the IT side of the broadcast plant.
  • “Jazz Up” the image of broadcast engineering.
  • A new IEEE course being developed called “Bridging the Broadcast/IT Gap” to bring older engineers in touch with newer technologies that could work in reverse for IT-minded youngsters.
  • and “it couldn’t hurt to boost the pay”.

I think the last item is where James buries the lead.  The last item on the list really should be the first item on the list.  Boosting pay is the only way to attract young geeks (like me) into the non-standard workday/workweek and workplace that is broadcast television.In my humble opinion the average broadcast engineer regularly gets the shaft when it comes to pay, especially when compared to like-ranked department heads in the same station.  Forgetting the GM, when the department heads gather around the conference room table every week for their meeting you can bet that the order of pay goes from General Sales Manager, Local Sales Manager(s) (sometimes they don’t attend), News Director, Promotions Manager, Production Manager, Chief Engineer/DoE and then the Administrative Assistant to the GM.  I would list the janitor in the back of the room emptying the trash bins, but in some stations that also is the hat the Chief Engineer wears when he’s not busy keeping the station on the air.

However, it may surprise you that I don’t blame the GMs for this (at least not entirely).  Most of the blame for an engineer’s low pay is because of the engineer themselves!  GMs are in the business of running a business, so if they can hire a talented individual that doesn’t seem to know the market value for their technical skills and will work for peanuts, why not?  This isn’t because engineers are incapable, rather I believe it mostly boils down to the fact that they simply do not have the practiced talents to market their skills to their prospective/present employer and show their value as a cornerstone to the stations successful operation.  Still, there’s a bit more to it than just poor marketing on the engineer’s part and I feel it can be summed up to these key points which can be identified and improved upon by any engineer:

  • Confidence: Most engineers are confident in the work they do, but not around other people.  It’s how we’re wired.  So, whatever magic was done to restore the transmitter’s operation and get the station back on several cable systems around the area in time for Prime Time is taken for granted by the GM.  I’d pick interacting with a computer over a person any day of the week, but that computer won’t get me my next raise or talk about how I helped Johnny-bag-o-donuts out of a jam last Tuesday.
  • Communication:  Closely tied to “confidence”, but a separate skill that isn’t just about submitting the weekly summary e-mail to Corporate or the GM during the DH meeting; it’s about getting face time with your coworkers and your boss/manager to let them a) know what’s going on, b) what’s being done or has been done to address an issue and c) communicate relevant information such as what’s changed or what it took to save the day.  Trumpeting your successes isn’t a bad thing, but just refrain from trumpeting too loud and too long.
  • Teamwork:  Most engineers are out-of-my-way-I’m-a-one-man-fix-it machine, but this is more than just working together with others, it’s also about mentoring.  Saving the day by solving the unsolvable alone and keeping that information to oneself only serves to create mistrust from and alienation of coworkers.  It also means that the only one with the answer will wind up getting the call in the middle of the night when it breaks again!  The belief that if one keeps all that knowledge to themselves it will ensure their employment have been consistently proved wrong when they get booted out the door.  Sharing information and working together promotes reciprocal treatment.
  • Intellectual Curiosity:  This is where “seasoned” engineers seem to fall down quickly.  Very rarely do the grizzled veterans of the TV engineering industry embrace the rapid changes that have hit and continue to roll through at a rapid clip (and roll through they will).  Very often the attitude becomes “I’m too old to learn this new stuff” and/or “I’m not planning on being around much longer anyway”.  I’m one that LOVES new technology, but I don’t see it as a panacea for existing problems – more often than not we simply trade old problems for new ones and while we may need to tweak fewer trim pots we still need to understand the frequently added complexity of the new gear where adjustments are made via menus instead of card edges.  It’s easy to stay comfortable in the things we already know, but anyone can “do easy” – its the ones that can “do hard” that have value.
  • Network:  Wow.  Who would have that that this broadcast engineer would suggest a concept stereotypical of three-martini-lunch salespeople?  There is a lot of value in having a good network of people (engineers and others) on whom to call when needed for information, answers or the next job lead.  Take advantage of local SBE meetings and travel to NAB even if it’s on your dime (I have to!).  Get to know the vendors and their support staff when you deal with them.  Many times a good network of people will bring opportunities to you when you least expect it.  I know because it’s happened to me.

Am I a shining example of all these things I’ve laid out?  Hell no.  But, I work at it.  I take a step back from myself from time to time and try a little self examination to envision what others may perceive of my work, my skills and my interactions.  Then I try to develop them more in specific ways.

One last suggestion I would have to advance an engineer’s career and, most importantly, pay would be to quit your job!  Not right away mind you, but DON’T stay in one place forever.  Keep an ear to the ground often and strike out when the opportunity presents itself and it’s a good time for you.  Don’t be forced to react because you didn’t see the axe coming, but if you do at least have something loaded that you can fire if needed.

One of the big weaknesses I see time and again is that engineers put up with a lot of shit because they are deathly afraid to lose their job, mainly because they don’t see the value in their work and skills (engineers make very lousy marketing people).  Engineers create a technical sanctuary of equipment and systems to surround themselves with that they understand and can make perform anything they need it to do.  Consequently, they get more work piled on them, fewer resources to make things happen and do things well, minuscule raises to give them a sense of progress (sometimes almost as much as inflation!) and very little regard since everyone knows “he’s not going anywhere.”

I can honestly say I am better off for the times I’ve quit and moved on to another station, group or network.  Even the time my employment contract was not renewed (read: allowed to be let go – sounds nicer than ‘fired’) actually turned out to be the absolute best thing that ever happened to me personally and my broadcast engineering career.  You just never know what doors will open unless you look for new doors or get pushed through them.

While I know it sounds easy for me to write about this, it is something I draw personal experience from, and I know that engineers are mostly creatures of habit and change does not sit well with many (HEY! I just got it working right! Don’t mess with it!).  This characteristic is what management banks on.  Management knows that engineers don’t want to leave.  They know engineers are not creatures afflicted with wanderlust, they’re afflicted with habit.  Engineers want habit and a predictable routine to satisfy their need for order in their universe.  Because of this the station rarely suffers or is starved of engineering talent and just like a person, when they don’t starve they get fat and complacent.

Going hungry (whether it’s a person hungry for food or a company hungry for talent) makes one appreciate that time when they’re not starved for the things they need, i.e. more value is placed on keeping that hunger sated.  I believe that more stations need to be hungry for good engineers.