How do we grow our own Transmitter Engineers?

It’s 02:00 on a rainy morning and you are in a transmitter building on a cow pasture working to get the transmitter back on line.  What is not to love about that?

Well, having been in that situation a time or two in my career, maybe I can see why some would not find that a fun thing to do on a rainy morning.  Looking back, I’m not so sure I did at the time.  It did feel great to save the day and get us back on the air.

This is my dilemma, as I am sure it is for many of you hiring managers – “How do we grow our own transmitter engineers?”  Where can we find this special breed of engineer?  If like me, you have noticed we are getting older, grayer and closer to retirement every day and there are very few that follow in our footsteps.

Most of the new “engineers” are coming to me looking to be “Broadcast IT Engineers”; they don’t want to go outside if they can help it and never mind getting them out to the remote sites at a moment’s notice to repair a transmitter.

In my case, I have 17 radio transmitters and 9 TV transmitters scattered all over my state.  My concern is how to replace the retiring transmitter engineers.

How are others doing it?  Are they doing it?  Where are you going to find them?

If you have any ideas, please post them here.

12 thoughts on “How do we grow our own Transmitter Engineers?

  1. The industry must come together as one unit and fund schooling sponsored by manufacturers. Give potentinal candidates scholarships. The Ennes fund has been established for this very idea. Likely engineers are people who are in Ham Radio or Military Vets with a background in Communications.

  2. It does take a special breed to do this, as there’s only SBE certifications, no real formal training to do what we do day in and day out. IT is more and more a daily thing in the broadcast engineers life, but the RF is still there and paramount to what we do. I work at a state university where we try to find student engineers to foster into the profession, and for every 10 we find, maybe 1 is willing to do 2am trips to the shack, clean the consoles, and do other “menial” tasks, but someone’s got to do it. Unfortunately today, many of the students that come through the door are looking for incentive in their career paths, which there’s very little in broadcast engineering other than the love and challenges of what we do. Why would you enter a career that pays 30-50k/yr for 24/7 on-call mountaintop trips, and deal with ego’s the size of god when they could easily take a 100k/yr 9-5 cubicle job with some large company anywhere else? The question is more “where’s the incentive”? Every so often you find someone who’s very talented and enjoys the challenge. In 12 years and 18 students, i have only had 2 student engineers continue on after school to pursue a career in Broadcast Engineering. Most of the rest have moved on into IT careers at companies like Cisco, Dell, HP, etc.

    You have to love the challenge every day, and be willing to make mediocre wages to enter this career. Amazing how there’s very few who don’t want to go this route. And this *IS* the face of broadcast today. Fix this stigma, i think you might have more people interested in the career.

    • Alex, so true. The salary should be raised and possibly base it on the number of transmitters and other duties. Many station owners have added more duties, number of stations, etc without compensating the man or woman that keeps it all on the air.

  3. This is not rocket science. How about pay and working conditions commeasurate with comparable positions. Since broadcasting involves more IT every day, owners are going to have pay IT prices. That means salary AND benefits AND workload AND working conditions AND equipment/training budget.

    The level of denial in the radio industry over this simple fact is truly stunning.

  4. As a young Broadcast Engineer, and knowing that our Tx Engineer will be coming up on retirement before too long, I am highly interested in getting to know the RF side better. I just don’t even know where to start. Anyone have some suggestions?

    • Get your ham ticket and start playing around. Except it’s a bit more complicated than that, because it’s not cheap. You can get a little 2 meter HT for $50 or less, but to get any kind of range, or do anything really interesting other than talk on a repeater – and that doesn’t teach you much – you’ll have to build antennas and get them up in the air. Resource intensive.

      You can read some books, and that will help, but (at least for me) it’s the practical experience that I needed and still need.

    • Find a good mentor and go with them on those overnight transmitter calls, observe, ask questions, take notes, use your smart phone to take pictures or record videos of different procedures (try your hardest to stay off of facebook, twitter, or vine etc. while smartphone is in hand). Another tip, be USEFUL to your mentor, don’t make them feel like it’s going to be a task in itself to bring you along. Keep track of their tools and hardware, write down measurements, don’t complain, and actually PAY ATTENTION. Also, keep in mind that you may not get paid very well while shadowing an RF/Tx engineer, if at all – your compensation in these situations is often the knowledge/skill you gain. Remember, a mentor isn’t getting paid to teach you either….

  5. The problem is two-fold and interrelated. Alex has hit on them, but I will expand a bit on what he said. The problems are both education and incentive. The broadcast industry hires relatively few engineers which has caused broadcast engineering curriculum to be dropped from many educational institutions. These institutions instead give a very light background in basic electronics, with a few paragraphs of RF. They then concentrate on those subjects that will get their students jobs. IT and Industrial Electronics seem to be the two in our region. These industries are hiring, some with starting wage and benefit packages better than what I am getting after many years of successful experience. A young person would be foolish to turn these down. The “romance” of being involved with broadcasting seems to have waned as well which is also making it harder to attract qualified and motivated candidates.

    IT has become a large part of the broadcast environment and candidates for IT only positions are legion. My experience has been that they all show interest in the RF/Audio side of things until they find out that it takes a completely different skill set than what they were taught in school, as well as perseverance under extreme conditions and stress. NOT that they are lazy, not at all, This is just outside the experience of their instructors and not indicative of a purely IT environment which is what their educational experience was geared towards.

    Until broadcasters in general really understand that in the very near future that there will not be anyone left to get them back on the air, and that the manufacturers will not send someone out cheaply, there is not a lot that we, as engineers ourselves, can do about this. We might find talent, sans a lot of formal education,, but how many broadcasters will hire this additional engineering person to learn on the job? Personally I can’t think of any.

    Scholarships, etc. are wonderful and great ideas, but unless there are viable jobs available afterwards where is the incentive? Who among us would be willing to go through a few years of education and then work for not much more than minimum wage in an environment that can be deadly at times? Most engineers would happily pass on their knowledge to a new generation, but few can afford to pay the next generation out of their own pockets. Do I paint a bleak picture? Yes, I probably do, but it is the reality of the situation as I see it.

  6. Alex paints a true picture. Maybe not very pretty for broadcasters, but true. We were lucky to have one promising worker who enjoyed transmit site visits and did not mind ridiculous work schedules. A ham since age 12, RF was obviously an interest. He was also very good at I/T, especially with networks and user support. A generation younger than I, he was the obvious choice to be CE someday. I mentored him as if the job would in fact fall into his lap. One minor problem though… the I/T world pays a better salary and offers sane working hours. Weighing all the options, he exited broadcasting after nearly 5 years FT service. I believe to stay satisfied working in the technical side of radio, you must have a strong sense of public service and a love for solving problems, sometimes under very difficult circumstances.

  7. Since the previous posts covered most of the answers, I will only add a suggestion:

    How about creating a certification category such as “Certified RF Transmitter Engineer” or something similar? That would at least provide some legitimacy to this unseen side of terrestrial broadcasting, and would create some interest.

  8. This is one of the most frustrating things as a young professional in this industry. I am very fortunate to have such a great background and would love to pick up the transmitter side of things. I honestly wish that the SBE would get with the transmitter manufacturers and create some sort of crash course on transmitter maintenance and repair.

    I have a great background with my Masters in Media Communications Management and my Undergrad in IT, coupled with my Military experience in RF and Ham Radio. It only makes sense for me to add transmitter experience but I have found that there is no path forward to allow me to do so. Right now I work for DirecTV as an engineer at the South West Uplink Facility, but lets be honest, satellite transmissions are not the same as working on a transmitter.

    I also have found that in order to get that experience I would have to go down into the smaller markets and take a huge pay cut. I look forward to getting transmitter experience when the opportunity does arise.

    • There is one program that has been started by a state broadcast association, Georgia seems to come to mind. However you almost hit the bullseye when you said you would have to take a significant pay cut and start at a small station to get your foot in the door. There is no one teaching broadcast engineering because the industry does not hire enough people to make it worthwhile. Vocational schools (where this has been taught historically) only teach what can get students hired by industries in the region. Sure, you will hear broadcasters complain they can’t find engineers, but then they won’t pay them anything near what the job demands. Some engineers love it and stay, others are a bit more practical and transfer those skills to an industry that pays more and has better benefits. Young people, if they look, see what the broadcast industry requires and head the other way. I can’t really blame them either. I do wish you luck, but you are looking at a rather rough road to travel.

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