AV’s Self Esteem Problem

Many of my long-time readers know that I recently started a new fulltime position with a new integrator, Net-AV in Hampstead, Maryland. Since starting, a good deal of time has been spent discussing corporate and industry philosophies with my new boss and my new supervisor. Fortunately, my views and opinions are very much in sync with my new colleagues, but one of those recent conversations with Steve, my supervisor, got me thinking about our industry and I’ve come to the conclusion that the AV industry — particularly ProAV — has a major self esteem problem.

Now, the AV industry has been around for AT LEAST 70 years, since our trade association InfoComm celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2009, and you can’t have a trade association without the industry existing! Yet, we don’t have widespread recognition, acknowledgement or understanding. You’ve read my ranting on the lack of visibility of our industry when I called for every one of you to evangelize our field! You’ve read me repeatedly bemoaning the lack of formal education programs and degrees for our field like those available for the IT world. All of which is still true and still a problem — yet all of which goes a long way to explaining our self esteem issues.

So what are these issues? Well, obviously we must feel inferior in some way as, across the board, we tend to give away our collective knowledge and skill. This may be changing (I hope!) but few integrators charge for engineering services. If they do charge for it, they undercharge at rates comparable to a simple installer, rather than charging an appropriate premium for the designer’s knowledge and experience. And speaking of installers, how many integrators charge varying rates based on installer’s roles and training levels? Even if you only charge a flat “installer” or “tech” rate, how do those rates compare to the other tradesmen on the job sites? The point my coworker made is that, very often, the AV integrators charge less for their installers than the construction companies charge for their carpenters, or electricians, or drywall guys. Now, I’m not disparaging those trades in any way. I know there are apprenticeships and training levels and a lot that goes in to becoming a master carpenter or master electrician… but at the end of the day, it’s a limited skill set in comparison. After all, carpenters know carpentry. Electricians know electrical. AV field guys (at least, the well-trained kind we should train up and have on staff) have to know some elements of carpentry, electrical, electronics and signal flow, optics, acoustics, a good deal of IT, and even enough psychology and customer service to train end users during commissioning. That’s a tall order, and explains why we are constantly looking for new techs and having to train them from scratch! Yet, we can’t charge even as much for those guys as the other trades?

Plus, the rates for AV techs and design engineers are WAY lower than the rates IT personnel get, when the reality is, today’s AV techs and design engineers are more similar to those guys than they are the construction tradesmen. So why don’t we charge as much for our guys and gals? This is where we have our self esteem issue. We may not have degree programs or entire departments at corporations dedicated to our field — yet! — but our work, our knowledge, our skills and talents are worth as much as theirs, particularly today when the two fields have become so entwined and interdependent.

I’m reminded of a book I read many years ago about two sisters, twins who were very similar, but the younger (Caroline) was prettier, more talented, more outgoing and generally more well-loved and well-respected. The entire story was the struggle of the elder (Sara Louise) to reconcile her jealousy and bitterness towards the younger sister and develop her own sense of self-worth. It took moving far from home as an adult and focusing on her own strengths and skills until she finally realized her own value. The book is the Newbery Award-winning Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and the title refers to the Biblical story of Jacob, another beloved younger sibling, and his older brother Esau, who also suffered many years in his younger sibling’s shadow before eventually realizing his own worth and becoming a success in his own right.

In many ways, the relationship between AV and IT resembles the relationships of those stories. AV came first, for the most part, with projectors and audio reproduction existing commercially well before the first commercial computers.  Yet, for many decades now, IT — the younger sib — has been viewed as more talented, more valuable, more necessary for successful business, and more worthy of study and implementation. Today, we need to work as an industry to do what took Sara Louise and Esau a lifetime to accomplish — we need to understand and accept our own worth as an industry and begin to act accordingly. This means we need to educate our customers as to the depth and breadth of knowledge we possess and work to increase their understanding of the value we bring them. We need to make sure our techs and engineers have all the training possible and that they earn their certifications — CTS, CTS-D or CTS-I, low voltage electrical licenses, basic Microsoft or Cisco certifications and so on. We also need to start charging accordingly!  It is something that will take time and a level of commitment across the industry, but it is also something we need to do.
For until we realize our own worth, we will never do an adequate job of convincing others — other trades, our customers, educators and so on — that we are an industry worth respect, worth investing in,and worth pursuing. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will follow in our wake to take these steps. Now, repeat after me, everyone:  “We’re good enough. We’re smart enough.  And gosh darn it, people like us!”

Photo credit for comic – ©2007 by Doug Savage, Savage Chickens comic

Dawn Meade, CTS — also known as AVDawn — is the marketing and media coordinator for Net-AV in Hampstead, Maryland. She is an industry veteran with experience in integration, AV sales, and social media. You can find her on Twitter, on AVNation podcasts, on her AV tech blog, and of course, here at rAVe as a staff writer and as part of the rAVe BlogSquad