Telecommunications

We explore how experience of IT and communications systems learned in the Armed Forces can be transferred into civilian life.

“Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance,” was the message allegedly sent by an officer on the front line during the First World War. Unfortunately, because the urgent request was passed back by word of mouth, by the time the Generals at HQ received it, mis-hearings and misunderstandings had changed the message to “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.”

This example of the corrupting influence of ‘Chinese whispers’ is almost certainly apocryphal, but it underlines two important points: firstly, poor communication links can garble messages they’re supposed to be carrying; secondly, because of this, secure and reliable systems are absolutely vital, particularly in combat situations. The MoD are fully aware of this, having recently announced the purchase of a new £200 million ‘air-portable’ battlefield communications network called FALCON which, when it comes into service in 2010, will be one of the most advanced and powerful digital communications networks in the field. Offering up to 50 times the current data carrying capability, FALCON will be able to relay information between battlefield commanders and UK headquarters via the MoD’s new Skynet 5 satellite communications system.

TELECOMS IN CIVVY STREET
High-tech communication systems are far from being the preserve of the Armed Forces. Technology is developing equally rapidly on civvy street, and you shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the UK’s telecoms sector in terms of both the technology it uses and the career opportunities it offers. Bizarre as it might seem, there are now more mobile phones in the UK than there are people, while the ongoing expansion of broadband networks is continuing to change the way many of us ‘work, rest and play’. In a world where you can potentially use your mobile phone to access the internet, send emails or download videos – and where companies offer phone, internet and television services through the same cables – telecoms is at the heart of our ‘information economy’.

Modern day telecommunications companies need people to erect, fit out, and maintain the aerials, base stations, exchanges and fixed line/cable networks that form the backbone of their physical infrastructure. They also need people to manage and plan those networks, as well as create and develop the software which then enables our communications systems to function accurately and promptly; after all, all communications are repeatedly processed – compressed, decompressed, broken up, reconstituted – before they arrive at their destination. In this high-tech industry, even those primarily concerned with the installation of hardware will need a reasonable level of computer literacy.

Although IT may have a reputation for attracting young people, the age profile for the telecoms sector is pretty similar to the UK workforce as a whole, albeit with a slightly higher percentage of 25-54 year olds and fewer aged 16-24 and 55-64. This may be largely thanks to the skills-orientated nature of the industry; it attracts people with a certain level of experience and knowledge, and the maturity that comes with it, along with other valued interpersonal skills.

ALREADY QUALIFIED?
Each of the UK’s Armed Forces has its own telecommunication systems specialists within their ranks – for example, members of the Army’s Royal Corps of Signals. They are responsible for the operation, installation, repair and continued maintenance of a wide range of both military and civilian communication systems and networks, which the Forces rely on for communications during both training and operations.

Such a career within the Armed Forces can lead to a range of useful qualifications from NVQs and City & Guilds certificates to BTEC National Diplomas and degrees, such as the BSc (Hons) in Telecommunications Systems Engineering.

Regardless of your expertise, it is important to take advantage of any training courses and advice available through the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) to ensure that you have the appropriate skills, experience and qualities sought by employers within the civilian telecoms industry.

LOOKING FOR QUALIFICATIONS?
Clearly, anyone who has specialised in areas of telecoms as part of their career path within the Armed Forces will possess valuable and applicable skills as they move back into civvy street. However, if you don’t already have such technical experience, you can still enter the industry, although you will obviously start at a different level.

An increasing range of qualifications have been devised by e-skills UK (the sector skills council for the telecommunications industry) which are increasingly recognised by civilian employers. These range from vocational qualifications – apprenticeships, foundation degrees and Graduate Professional Development Awards (combining work-related training and work-based assessment) – to intermediate qualifications (HNCs and HNDs) and degree level qualifications which will involve at least some study at college or university. Some major IT companies and professional bodies – such as Microsoft and the Institute for the Management of Information Systems – have devised their own qualifications.

Always remember that, whether you have telecommunications experience or not, you are likely to have the dedicated work ethic and interpersonal qualities – such as problem-solving and team-working skills – that are increasingly valued within the telecommunications industry.

ONGOING TRAINING
With both technology and services continuing to develop at an increasing rate, telecoms is an industry where learning never really stops. According to the latest survey by e-skills, telecoms staff continue to receive more job-related education/training than other workers – in late 2005, for instance, a third of employees received some kind of training, compared with only 28% of the whole UK workforce. NTL Incorporated, which now provides services for some 12 million households across the UK, not only puts all new recruits through an appropriate induction course, but also provides a range of on-going training courses using ‘development specialists’ and – increasingly – online learning. Meanwhile, every employee at BT has a specially tailored Development Action Plan in place to support both current and future career development. BT also has a number of coaching, networking, mentoring and ‘buddy programmes’, plus a range of online and off-line training courses provided by their own ‘corporate university’, the BT Academy.

WORKING IN TELECOMMUNICATIONS
Telecoms is one of the fastest changing sectors around. As communications technology evolves further, and continues to bed itself deeper into our lives, the range of jobs on offer will continue to increase, offering excellent career opportunities to anyone with good communication and problem-solving skills, plus the up-to-date technical knowledge needed by the sector.

PAY & PROSPECTS
Salaries can vary significantly depending on whether you’re employed full-time or on short-term contracts, although both have risen significantly in comparison to average salaries in the UK. According to e-skills UK, during the last quarter of 2005, the average weekly salary (before tax) for contract workers in telecommunications was £593 (£30,836 a year), well above the UK average gross salary of £394 a week. Salaries for telecoms engineers across England range between £18,000 and £25,000; those for network engineers range between £30,000 and £45,000. Large companies will enhance salaries with shift allowances and additional benefits such as private healthcare options, bonus schemes and discounts on both the company’s own services and those negotiated with other companies or organisations, such as life assurance, holidays and hotel accommodation.

Prospects in this sector are also good; during the last quarter of 2005, workers were in demand, skills gaps were down and training levels in the sector were above the UK average. There was a slight fall in the number of people actually working in the sector at a time when there was a continued increase in telecommunication vacancies advertised within JobCentre Plus offices and specialist computing publications. Consequently, according to e-skills UK “Salaries of telecoms professionals increased by an impressive 28% (net).”

“WHAT TEAMWORK IS ALL ABOUT.”
Peter Stacey, head of the apprenticeship programme at mobile network company O2, first became interested in telecommunications during his ten years as a Royal Navy marine engineer. He then opted to completely retrain once he re-entered civvy street in the early 1970s. “I was fortunate enough to get a job with Post Office Telephones,” says Peter. “I was given a lot of opportunities there to improve myself and I was able to gain professional qualifications at college.”

As Post Office Telephones became British Telecom and then BT, Peter worked his way up to become a senior technician before progressing into management: “I moved away from day-to-day engineering to a performance management role, responsible for large groups of staff.” It was around this time, however, that he realised he again wanted to change the focus of his career – towards training. “I’d done lots of voluntary work, which gave me an understanding of the type of training I wanted to move into.”

The opportunity finally came when he moved to 02. “They wanted someone to pick up and develop apprenticeships; the company had identified that they wanted to invest and support that sort of a programme, but what they didn’t have was someone with my background and skills from both an engineering and training point of view.”

Although Peter entered telecommunications after military service, he nevertheless believes his experience in the Navy contributed to the success of his subsequent career. “The Navy gave me a very good grounding with people; the ability to interact at all different levels with people is absolutely vital if you want to succeed in any career. There’s also the real sense of what teamwork is all about, of everyone being dependent on each other to deliver something.”

FURTHER INFORMATION

Communications & Information Technology Association
(formerly Telecommunications Industry Association)
www.cita.org.uk
01908 645000

Communications Management Association
www.thecma.com
01372 361234

e-skills UK (sector skills council for IT & telecoms industries)
www.e-skills.com
020 7963 8920

Learn Direct (for information on courses)
www.learndirect.co.uk
0800 100 900
www.learndirectscotland.com
0808 100 9000