I interviewed for an internship at a local Philadelphia sound company many years ago. During the interview my future mentor told me that learning to be a sound engineer is no different than studying to be a doctor. He told me my mom would brag about “my son, the sound man.” In that spirit, considering the entertainment industry is one of the oldest professions, I find it interesting that studying and testing to becoming a doctor or lawyer is more consistent and reliable than becoming a stagehand! Can you believe it?
In the 1980s, a sound company owner began holding classes once a week in the evening for his staff, including interns. We would gather at his house next to the shop and sit around the dining room table enjoying his wife's cooking while he lectured us on various topics. Classes usually included time for Q&A on theories and what we learned and experienced working local shows. The class on troubleshooting moved into the warehouse where a PA system was assembled and then sabotaged by the owner. Participants would enter the shop one by one and were asked to find the problem.
Other classes included back-line, trucks and truck engines, and artist accommodation. Thanks to these informal classes, I felt more comfortable as an employee. Interns were encouraged to ask questions and warned that the owner would be constantly challenging us. I began to ask questions as often as possible, and at the end of each day, I built two lists: “Things I Learned” and “Questions.”
While there is no substitute for on-the-job experience, we have a large variety of educational and certification opportunities for our industry. After all, would you want to stand under a projector, lighting truss, or speaker array flown by a rigger who has done it only once?
While I am comfortable tying into an electrical disconnect, I am not a licensed electrician, therefore, not covered by insurance should an accident occur. For employers, employees, venue managers, and the customer, comfort is attainable through the following variety of educational programs and certification testing available throughout our industry.
Traditional Degree Programs
Several two- and four-year degree programs exist at accredited college and universities. Many programs are associated with larger schools with excellent facilities and budgets — for example, Yale University, UCLA, and Carnegie-Mellon. While some offer general stagecraft degrees, others are more specific to theater design or film and television. Other schools offer more specific training in art, theater, or music, such as North Carolina School of the Arts, Parsons School of Design, New York, and Berklee College of Music, Boston.
Be advised that some of these schools reserve design classes for the graduate programs. Others allow you to become fully immersed in your specific area of interest. Attending a college with a wider range of liberal arts offerings can benefit you in the long run, simply by expanding your broader knowledge range. While I was studying technical theater at Emerson College, for instance, I enjoyed the opportunity to attend other classes, especially business and speech classes.
Trade schools, such as Full Sail, Orlando, Fla., and the Institute of Audio Research, New York, offer programs consisting of one year or less. However, these programs provide significant hands-on training with state-of-the-art equipment. Manufacturers are generous with their equipment donations, and students are usually required to participate in a minimum number of lab hours.
ESTA has begun a new and serious commitment to the development of an Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) specializing in live entertainment. Due to demand created by our industry, ESTA assembled a high-level team to initiate this program. That team is made up of manufacturers, A/V and staging companies, facilities, and technicians. Members include International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM), International Communication Industries Association (ICIA), United States Institute for Theater Technology (USITT), and Clear Channel Communications' executives. A full list of council members can be seen at www.etcp.esta.org.
The council is responsible for policies, procedures, and fund-raising for the certification training program. Because ESTA is committed to creating the highest level of training, council members also include lawyers, full-time technical experts, and safety specialists. To insure a rigorous, unbiased, and legally defensible exam, the council hired a firm specializing in psychometrics, scientists who measure and test the certification testing. By using job-task analysis and job-analysis surveys, these training experts ensure that classes are designed well and write questions for the exam.
Creating exams with this level of quality, diversity — to cover theater, film, concerts, events — and safety can get expensive. ESTA welcomes your participation, and employers should be excited about the level of confidence in this certification. Currently, there are two areas of testing: rigging — arena and theatrical — and electrical — temporary and permanent. The rigging exam is currently available, but examination testing for electrical will begin at ETS-LDI in 2005. The committee is also beginning research for certification in the laser and pyrotechnics areas. In addition, they are considering adding more levels, such as a supervisors level.
For those who want a less specialized introductory education, there exists an entry-level Essential Skills certificate program. This certification can be helpful in determining your career path for student assessment. The goal is to make attendees more comfortable working on stages in arenas, theaters, and hotel ballrooms. The test covers fundamental basics in terminology, safety, and equipment, and covers 13 independent areas, such as lighting, audio, and electricity. Several industry experts, whose careers include years of training, are also involved in this training program.
ESTA's Technician Standards program is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Designed to protect workers and the industry, ESTA created several standards, including categories such as fall-arrest equipment, wire rope, and truss standards. The trussing standard provides a description of manufacturing requirements, as well as use, repair, and maintenance of trussing. When an accident occurred at a recent David Bowie concert, a local official who had never before seen a wire-rope ladder referred to ESTA's standard to determine fault.
ICIA offers a wide range of programs under its training umbrella. Online and on location, ICIA offers continuing education in four disciplines: installation, design, rental, and sales. For those already holding a general certification from ICIA, participation in these programs helps them prepare for specialized certification in these areas. For hands-on instruction, ICIA classes are available at its facility in Fairfax, Va., as well as in Australia, Asia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. For those with smaller travel budgets, classes are offered at the annual InfoComm International tradeshow.
According to ICIA officials with regards to certification, although general education or training can certainly lead to certification, it's important to remember they are two, separate, educational steps. Currently, more than 2,700 individuals have qualified for Certified Technology Specialist (CTS). The desire for certification has grown over the last several years, so based on the current certification rate, the ICIA expects to certify more than 1,000 individuals by the end of 2004.
The certification is offered on two levels: general and specified. The generalized online exam consists of 100 questions regarding basic audiovisual in both science and technology. The specialized exams consist of written, oral, and practical exams.
The ICIA also has offered company-wide certification programs for years. Certified AudioVisual Solutions Providers (CAVSPs) are companies that have demonstrated a commitment to training and certification. The CAVSP is awarded based on the number of CTS-certified employees a company employs. To date, there are 90 CAVSP companies that are finding this designation extremely useful in marketing to their customers.
Online training is another key aspect of ICIA's approach to education and certification. To help students start preparing for certification, the ICIA currently offers seven online classes.
“InfoComm Academy has trained almost 22,000 students since the first online training program premiered in 1997. Today, we average about 2,500 students online at any given time,” explains Terry Friesenborg, CTS, senior vice president of education and international development for ICIA. Introductory classes include Quick Start to the Audiovisual Industry, Essentials of the A/V Industry, and A/V from A to Z for Sales Professionals. “Since technical communication has a foundation in science, especially physics, the Essentials course, which we just enhanced, provides a solid foundation for all,” says Friesenborg.
ICIA also offers more advanced online courses for design, installation, networking, and rental. Its Rental School offers instruction in technical and client skills and is designed to be both serious and fun. The interactive program is application-driven, providing a real-world setting to explain the equipment and technology, as well as the customer service aspects of the job. The goal of the rental track is to provide rental dealerships with an effective training tool. Developed by industry professionals with years of experience in the A/V rental industry, the program is easy and cost-effective to implement.
ICIA also offers in-depth onsite programs. Through the InfoComm Academy OnSite program, for example, the organization trains approximately 500 students a year with two- and three-day classes held in the United States and around the world. Additionally, many more take advantage of the InfoComm Academy conference programs held at Integrated Systems tradeshows in Europe, Singapore, and China. There is also a sales course focusing specifically on rental and staging.
The Rental and Staging Operations course is for the more experienced industry professionals who have taken Rental School online and are now seeking hands-on practice in integrating advanced technologies and handling more sophisticated staging requirements for large-scale events. The course uses mock sales calls, which are videotaped and then critiqued by the instructors and class, much in the same way that professional sports coaches utilize videotape to train prospective athletes.
Tradeshows remain a key component of the ICIA's educational approach, and InfoComm remains a key industry resource in this regard. InfoComm and other industry tradeshows offer classes and seminars along with “the show floor,” consisting of manufacturers' booths showing products and services. These shows offer an excellent opportunity to see new and upcoming products, so one can kill two birds with one stone by arriving at the show a few days earlier to attend in-depth training sessions. As far as operating equipment, I find attending tradeshows valuable not only for knowledge of the latest and greatest toys, but also a time to ask manufacturers about operating the gear and finding out why it does what it does.
Other organizations offer a variety of key shows as well. I recommend varying your attendance to absorb the most information possible. Even if you work in only one discipline — video, for example — there are plenty of shows to attend. The ETS-LDI show has evolved in recent years and is more focused on production; not just its core lighting discipline. The Audio Engineering Society's (AES) is obviously dedicated to audio. USITT, National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), Broadway Lighting Master Classes (BLMC) and Broadway Sound Master Classes (BSMC), and Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), to name just a few, all offer excellent opportunities to attend classes, seminars, and workshops, in addition to visiting with various manufacturers and reps.
But no show has a wider range of educational opportunities for rental-and-staging professionals than InfoComm.
“We are finding that, for people planning to attend InfoComm, coming a few days earlier to attend classes and prepare for certification or to gain certification renewal units seems to make sense,” says Melissa Taggart, InfoComm's vice president of education and workforce development. “Most InfoComm courses offer certification renewal units to make it easier for industry professionals to stay up-to-date in their field.”
Now, my time and focus is more on the sales and logistics/management side. I, therefore, appreciate the opportunity to increase my technical, and electrical knowledge. (Not to mention picking up free T-shirts!) My advice is, don't just go to the booths and kick the tires, but engage manufacturers in what they do best: teaching you all about their products.
No matter your approach to the show floor, make sure you attend the show's classes, seminars, and industry panels. InfoComm offers many seminars each year, including classes on streaming media and digital video. Each year there are different classes, and outside training experts, such as Syn-Aud-Con, have provided instruction in conjunction with the tradeshow. At this year's Infocomm held in Atlanta, “Super Tuesday” was created specifically for rental-and-staging business owners.
The ICIA is continually revising its programs. Through job-task analysis, surveys of industry professionals, and the products and teach your staff the recommended way of operating the gear. In the comfort of your own facility, your team can push buttons and get and give instant manufacturer feedback. When I worked for Ace Audiovisual, Lynbrook, N.Y., not only did we schedule these sessions during our slow season, but we separated our staff into small groups of five to eight people to best maximize both the student/teacher ratio and hands-on time with the gear.
Besides technical training, more general technical and management programs offer exciting opportunities. While there is no substitute for knowing your craft in a service industry, today's department heads and technicians are often being called on to wear more than one hat. Communication and customer service skills, therefore, are a must, especially for people who interact with customers. Today's technicians are ambassadors of your company and your industry. Knowing how to converge a projector is useless if the technician cannot make those around him comfortable with what he is doing.
Another tip: Liberally use search engines on the Internet. I found many more options available. If you add the name of your local city or state to the search parameters, you will find local training options, which will save travel time and money for you and your employees. Many schools and colleges have single-evening or Saturday continuing educational offerings for those too busy to get training during business hours. Some industry people even work with competitors to jointly sponsor training seminars, helping to defray costs.
This is your industry, so get involved. What and whom we put into these programs will return us a more solid and credible industry, and this benefits everyone. With changes in technology and increased information sharing, no longer will having a van and PA system be sufficient credentials to enter our industry. Customers' knowledge is increasing, and they are demanding quality work from certified professionals.
Bill Magod started in the staging industry in 1984 as a stagehand for an opera company. He worked in sound reinforcement for several years, and earned a B.S. in Speech from Emerson College, with a minor in Technical Theater, followed by an MBA from Boston University. Currently, he manages Advanced Concert & Event Resources of Woodside, N.Y., a full-service production management company, and routinely works as a consultant on a wide range of live events. You can reach him at BMagod@aol.com