August 13, 2016 by Betsy Jaffe

NextGenThis column first appeared in Sound & Communications.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized I was getting older. But I remember the day. I was listening to Steely Dan in my car when my teenage daughter implored, “You need to turn off this old people’s music right now!” Luckily we were near the house so I wasn’t subjected to the boy band of the moment being played on another station. As I got out of the car, my back aching from the strain, I meandered to my mailbox, only to see a premature invitation to join AARP.

A few years ago, I was talking to a new InfoComm staff person attending his first show with us. As he thanked me for making his first business trip a great experience, in my mind I was transported back to my first business trip — an association annual meeting in Chicago 25 years ago. Then, as I chatted with seasoned professionals and dined at Morton’s with my boss and members, I remember how inexperienced I felt and a million miles away from my desk job. Since then, I’d flown more than a million miles and worked several other careers and I became the person acclimating the newbie, introducing him to my contacts, making sure he tipped his cab driver and packed his business cards. I warned my charge that his career was going to go by in an instant. Before he knew it, he would be in the reverse role, mentoring somebody else.

If you’ve been to an InfoComm show of late, you will see colorful displays of all kinds. But you will also see a lot of another shade: grey. Now, the Grateful Dead used to sing about how a touch of grey doesn’t matter anyway. But just as I did when the AARP got in touch with me, the audiovisual industry needs to face facts. Our industry is aging. And for all of our knowledge, experience and know-how, there isn’t a long line of people ready to take our place. In fact, lack of access to qualified personnel is the leading obstacle to further AV industry growth.

We know that there is no simple path to an AV career; no easy-to-understand degree you can achieve and then start your AV job. Most middle and high school students don’t dream about a career in our field. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Enter the International Communications Industries Foundation. The ICIF is InfoComm’s educational foundation, and its primary goal is workforce development. And in the past few months its board has made remarkable progress. We honored industry great Michael Vergauwen by giving away two $5,000 college scholarships to two promising young women studying to be AV professionals. We matched InfoComm member scholarship grants, providing students with paid AV industry internships, training, mentorship and $4,000 towards their degree.

But the foundation does more than give out money. We recently hosted a booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., where we greeted 350,000 students, teachers, career counselors and parents, showcasing the science, fun, and “wow” of the AV industry. With lighting demonstrations, videos of projection mapping, virtual reality, immersive technologies and drones, alongside interactive kiosks where students could experience sound waves and hear the difference between styles of headphones, we received a lot of interest in pursuing AV careers. I knew the endeavor was worthwhile when I overheard one teen say to a friend, “You know, we could get paid to do this?” and his friend responded, “This is cool, and it’s a real career.”

Of course, if there were a formal course of study, it would be easier to attract our next generation of workers. That is why we are working with colleges and universities to create degree and certification training programs in audiovisual studies. In addition to continuing our relationship with Columbia College of Chicago, this year we have met with more than 50 representatives of colleges and universities to create academic programs aimed at creating our next generation of AV professionals. When colleges learn of the number of industry jobs, the type of work and salaries available, and about InfoComm’s curriculum, they express both surprise and interest.

And that’s where you come in. If you have a relationship with a college, university or tech school, and you think they would be interested in hosting an audiovisual training program, please let me know. And if you want us to be able to continue and expand our workforce development activities, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the ICIF. All funds are used to advance the audiovisual industry, so be as generous as you can. Checks can be made payable to ICIF and mailed in care of InfoComm to 12212 Waples Mill Road, Suite 200, Fairfax, VA 22030.

Together, we can meet the challenge of identifying, developing and nurturing the next generation of professionals who will take this industry to next, exciting places.

About Betsy Jaffe

Betsy Jaffe is Senior Vice President of Member Services for AVIXA. She was previously Vice President of Communications, overseeing the public relations, government affairs and social media activities of the association. Prior to joining AVIXA in 2005, Betsy was a director at Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick Worldwide, developing public affairs campaigns for Altria/Philip Morris USA, Cisco, The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and others.