Help Wanted: Qualified Integrators for Higher Ed
In my previous post, I lamented that in my corner of the market for AV in higher education, my colleagues and I have been, well, less than happy with some of the AV integrators who’ve done work for us. One traditional belief about integrators is that they bring specialized and superior skills. But I worry about how often integrators use independent contractors (temps) to fill their labor force. It seems temps are for assembly and install. And in some respects it makes sense; integrators do have to deal with a wildly fluctuating workload. We, however, have no idea what their qualifications are. And judging by some of the work out there, neither do integrators.
Independent contractors are also filling the integrator ranks in more sophisticated areas like system design and programming. That’s something we’re all learning through the proliferation of social media and sites like LinkedIn. They may work for you (the integrator) on a contract basis, but most are just as eager to work for us directly and cut out the middleman.
One local integrator (an SCN top-10 integrator) had a two-man team doing most of its work here on campus. We came to call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I have a projector lift and large electric screen installed backwards courtesy of them. For the lift, we were able to reverse the mount. For the screen, however, we needed the manufacturer to reverse the material on the roll because the ceiling had been closed up.
I recently saw a nice new collaborative teaching space at one of the local Cal State schools. Eight tables, each set up for eight students, multiple inputs and a monitor at each. It also had a very nicely appointed teaching station in the center of the room. It was a relatively sophisticated system. In the back room, they showed us the equipment and the hundreds of feet of meticulously bundled category and fiber cables, all of which were garroted down (at precise multi-inch intervals nonetheless) to a fraction of their original diameter by tie wraps that looked to be cinched within a fraction of breaking.
Down at UC San Diego they have an interesting situation. They do all campus AV design in-house, and send all the install work out to bid. They fought a multi-year battle to take complete control over who can do install work on campus after constantly dealing with poorly built systems. Now they test and approve every person who does AV install work on campus. Test, approve, certify.
I find it telling that new work increasingly requires that project personnel hold certifications. And I think many people see it as introducing an aspect of accountability to the integration process. Kramer Electronics was out here about a year ago, teaching its travelling CTS class on campus. Three-quarters of the people in the class were from local integrators. They were openly concerned about their ability to bid on future AV contracts if they didn’t get more of their people certified.
Project completion standards will follow right behind certifications and be the next big thing in the AV world. I welcome InfoComm’s new AV Systems Performance Verification Checklist [PDF]. It’s a good start. I wonder, though, just how often we’ll see it used on your average install. The fact that so much of it just points back to “project documentation” concerns me because what passes for documentation on most projects is pretty scary.
Certifications and standards may be the best way to convince people like me of an AV integrator’s aptitude. And hopefully they’ll grow more important than other methods…like pictures of installs on websites. No, they aren’t always easy to coordinate. If getting glossy install pictures were easy, anyone could call themselves an integrator. Oh, wait…
To me, install pictures say that fairly late in the project, the customer hadn’t chased you off the premises with a pitchfork. If they’re good, detailed pictures, we can get an idea of what sort of work you do. But spare me the pretty pastoral shot of a room with a video projector on the ceiling. You want to impress me? Put pictures of the backs of your racks online.
And customer lists are worthless. I’m amazed how often I’ll see our name listed, meanwhile everyone I know who dealt with that company has nothing nice to say about them.
There may be a bit of a reckoning on the horizon for integrators. Already, far more higher ed technology managers build their own systems than many people realize, and those ranks are growing. There is regular talk in our circles about how to break away from outside providers and bring as much capability in-house as possible, something I’ll talk about more in a future post.
It’s not an us-versus-them situation. We’re just looking for the best AV systems we can get that meet our requirements. If they’re from AV integrators, great. If not…