What works in technical jobs, career mapping and online education

11/27/2011  |  SUSAN KANNEL
Technical Career Options for Students

Workforce preparation for the “evolving information industry” is both complicated and critical. It involves two equally challenging questions which need to be continually answered: Where is the industry headed? And what workforce skills are required to get there? Just 10 years ago, telecom innovation included a fax machine — second phone line — in every home and an exorbitantly expensive cell phone the size of a brick. Today consumers expect to be connected at all times to phone, text, movies, shopping, social media and music, using a growing variety of interchangeable devices — all available at competitive prices.

NACTEL, the National Coalition for Telecommunications and Learning, is a non-profit organization of telecommunications employer and labor members that has worked collaboratively with Pace University to develop online courses, certificates, and degrees that map to technician jobs in the industry. Since 1999, NACTEL has strived to be “a premier source of online education to prepare individuals with the knowledge and skills required in the evolving information industry. “

In preparing a workforce for industry of the future, NACTEL’s focus is on these trends:

  1. Two factors are critical to remaining competitive: The speed and capacity of telecommunication networks, and continued innovation.
  2. The current telecom workforce continues to age; retirements will increase as the economy improves.
  3. Even factoring in these retirements, employment in the industry will remain flat or drop by several percentage points.
  4. In the future, broader and deeper technical and personal skills will be required across the spectrum of telecom jobs.
  5. Increasing financial stress on public P–16 education systems will result in less educational support for the industry.

In 2010 NACTEL launched an interactive career mapping tool, VIVIDFuture, to introduce prospective and incumbent employees to careers in the industry. Today VIVIDFuture.org represents a popular and unique workforce readiness experience.

Taken together, these two initiatives, the NACTEL program offered by Pace University, and VIVIDFuture.org, represent a case study in workforce readiness in the telecommunications industry.

NACTEL is jointly governed by its employer and labor members that today include AT&T, Century Link, The Communications Workers of America (CWA), Frontier Communications, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and Verizon Communications.


Subject matter experts (SME) representing each NACTEL member work collaboratively with Pace University to create and continually update a comprehensive online curriculum that maps to the ever-changing jobs within the industry. There are a variety of course, certificate and degree options designed to be “stackable” workforce credentials, meaning a student can start with a single course, build toward a series of certificates, which continue to build toward an associate’s, then a bachelor’s degree. Students who leave the program before completing either degree leave with a meaningful, industry recognized credential.

Why It Works

In 1999 the NACTEL program consisted of a single content area: an associate’s degree and two embedded certificates in traditional copper telephony. Over the next 13 years, the program evolved hand-in-glove with the telecom industry to include single “jump-start” courses, degrees at the associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s levels, and emphasis areas that include telecommunications, fiber networking, video technology, wireless networking and mobile technologies. Some of the factors contributing to NACTEL’s longevity and success include these:

  • The product. NACTEL offers a product that people want, namely online curriculum developed by, with, and for an industry. The continued hands-on contributions of NACTEL SMEs to the curriculum set this program apart from most other academic technical telecom programs. The curriculum is nimble and continually updated, a critical requirement for this industry.
  • The college. Pace University is a high performing academic partner, evidenced by award winning student services, small classes, an integrated team approach to faculty and curriculum development.
  • The format. This hands-on, technical curriculum is offered entirely online, which provides flexibility and equal access for a global incumbent workforce. The fact that courses are instructor-led provides the structure that students need. Courses are highly interactive and offer multiple ways to learn and practice new material.


In 2010 NACTEL and CAEL created VIVIDFuture.org, an innovative, interactive career mapping tool designed to help both incumbent telecom workers and those who want to enter the industry. This state-of-the art tool does five things:

  1. It introduces the new and emerging telecom industry, which is re-branded “VIVID,” to include Voice, Information, Video, Infrastructure, and Data.
  2. It hosts an industry-specific, niche job board that serves both employers and prospective employees.
  3. It offers an interactive job matching feature where prospective employees can “see what fits” as well learn the ups and downs of featured jobs.
  4. It provides an interactive career map; visitors to the site can create firsthand a career road map, “If I’m here and I want go get there, what path could I take?”
  5. It features more than 300 pre-screened education and training programs with telecom-specific curricula that map to the jobs featured on the site.

Why It Works

VIVIDFuture has caught on in ways that no one who planned the site ever imagined. In analyzing its success, three critical factors surface: industry credibility, it “speaks to” its target users, and effective project management.

  • Industry credibility. The NACTEL partners contributed large portions of internal data around industry staffing, recruiting, and training requirements, which were then synthesized and integrated through a series of validation sessions. The process was extremely labor-intensive, but the end result forms the backbone of the VIVIDFuture site.
  • User interface. VIVIDFuture targets three audiences : the incumbent workforce, adults who wish to enter the industry, and high school students. The important lesson in VIVIDFuture’s success is talk to your audience. The original plans for the tool differed drastically from the final VIVIDFuture product. These changes resulted from the feedback from a series of focused user interviews with the target audiences. One change, for example, involved using the term “telecom industry,” which may be perfectly clear for people who work for and in the industry, but with targeted users, it drew a blank stare. Even more, the term generated questions such as, “does it have something to do with telephones?” In another change, the initial plans for the site never included a job board, but when targeted users said that the only thing that would make them return to the site would be jobs, a job board was built.
  • Project management. More than 150 stakeholders and contractors contributed to the VIVIDFuture career mapping tool. Project management must include a careful blend of creativity, letting the process flow, and hardcore management.

Get started (or if you’ve already started, move it along!)

Taken together, the NACTEL program at Pace University and VIVIDFuture represent an effective workforce preparation strategy in the telecommunications industry. These initiatives started with employers with an eye on where the industry was moving and the workforce required to get there. This starting place is critical and can be replicated locally, regionally, or nationally. But employers are only the starting place. Next comes a clear understanding of skills and competencies, which inform the later steps of requisite education and training. Finally, the critical question is “is anyone listening?” which means knowing the target audience and testing the message.

Susan Kannel is the Executive Director of NACTEL and is the Associate Vice President of CAEL. CAEL is the management and fiscal agent for NACTEL.
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