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Trainees see the light: Greenlight and Wilson Community College partner in fiber optics class

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Gene Scott would say there is opportunity around every corner in the growing field of fiber optics, but there aren’t trained people to fill all the new jobs.

Scott is outside plant general manager for Greenlight, Wilson’s community broadband provider.

Greenlight is collaborating with Wilson Community College to provide a course in basic fiber optics hoping to attract people who can be trained in the emerging technology.

Scott has been involved with the Greenlight broadband network since its creation in 2006.

“When we were building this network, it became evident that we had created an opportunity for jobs in this specific field,” Scott said. “I realized when I would post these jobs, it was hard to get qualified people to apply for them and then if you had someone who didn’t have the skills but still was a good candidate, where would you do the training except in-house, on-the-job training?”

Scott and colleagues came up with this concept and this course as a trial to see if there was enough interest.

“Hopefully it will take off and we will be able to expand it into a two-year degree for people in fiber optics and anyone in the community would be able to come take it,” Scott said. “It’s not just for the city of Wilson, but you can go work for this company that’s doing the presentation today. You can go to Raleigh and work for Google or wherever. There is a big demand for it and we were trying to spur interest and let people know.”

The 10-week course runs through March 20.

Of the 15 people taking it, most are from nearby municipalities and counties who are growing fiber optic uses of their own.

Catharine Rice is a consultant for the city of Wilson who helped put the class together.

“This is just a huge moment for the city of Wilson,” Rice said. “They have the state’s first fiber-to-the-home, community-owned gigabit network. They are all about fiber, so what a great opportunity to start establishing Wilson as the fiber experts for the state and maybe beyond the state. For us it’s a really important first to bring people together to start testing out the idea of ‘Can we teach a course in fiber optics that will be affordable, that will attract young people and start them out with advanced skills and higher-paying jobs?”

Scott said it’s an important opportunity for young people to see fiber optics as a growing field that is going to have high demand and high wages.

Max Bohon, a field sales manager for Preformed Line Products, presented at Wednesday’s class. Bohon taught students how to prep dielectric self-supporting fiber optic cable for slicing into a closure.

Bohon said Wilson is on the cutting edge with broadband.

“I think they are absolute pioneers, really, especially from an electrical utility serving broadband internet to their customers,” Bohon said. “When your typical telecommunications company may not have been willing to do that years ago, Wilson made the initiative to serve Greenlight broadband to customers.”

Bohon said more people need to be trained to enter the workforce.

“Fiber optics and the USA’s need for broadband internet is going to keep growing,” Bohon said. “There is going to be a need for bandwidth in the future and where there is a need for bandwidth, there is a need for infrastructure, there is a need for service. There’s a need for people working in the industry like cable splicers and information technology and other people that can service our growing need for broadband internet.”

Bohon said that smart city initiatives, smart highways and more and more people having smart appliances in their home is creating a growing need for fiber optics.

“I think it will make for a growing industry that allows all of us an opportunity to live a more efficient life,” Bohon said

Scott compares broadband today to the way electricity was back in the 1930s when homes and neighborhoods were being electrified.

“It’s growing and it’s going to expand and it’s going to expand rapidly,” Scott said. “It’s like a snowball going downhill. The need for it is going to get bigger and bigger quick as more and more applications and products come out.”

Rice said many homes and businesses will have the expectation of having high-speed internet capacity that only fiber optics can provide.

“Wilson is a gigabit city,” Rice said. “I think they are far ahead having those kind of speeds. You want that maximum capacity coming into and out of your home and that’s where Wilson is particularly well positioned because they have fiber to every home. I live in a major metropolitan area right next to D.C. and Alexandria and we don’t have that and we are really suffering now. Our young people and our thinkers, our information workers, are all leaving to go where there is fiber optics, so Wilson is beautifully positioned for the future.”

Scott, Rice and Bohon said fiber optics will play a major role in the rollout of 5G cellular telephone networks.

“With 5G, it’s basically upgrading what we can provide to people’s cellphones and wireless devices in the form of wireless internet and where there is wireless internet, you need a fiber optic backhaul to support all of that data on the back end,” Bohon said. “Just because wireless is growing doesn’t mean fiber isn’t. It means fiber is as well in the form of backhaul to provide that wireless services.”

Rice said all wireless goes back to fiber.

“You can’t have 5G without the fiber backhaul that is attached to every one of those little devices, so it is part of our future and the first part because you cannot do 5G without fiber,” Rice said.

Bohon said his company just announced openings for seven new high-paying fiber optics jobs.

“It’s within reach of anybody — women, men, young and old,” Rice said.

Kim Gamlin, executive dean of continuing education at Wilson Community College, said the fiber optics course is an example of how WCC is helping train and retrain the workforce.

“We are glad to be partnering with Greenlight because they are a local Wilson provider and as being Wilson Community College, we are always glad to have partnerships with people in our own home,” Gamlin said. “This is just a way for our population to understand more about fiber optics in a broad spectrum offered in a short-term course in continuing education and from this point forward, we will see if we want to offer more in-depth courses. This is in response to our local partners and we value and appreciate those partnerships.”

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