Telephone and private branch exchange (PBX) installers and repairers install, service, and repair telephone and PBX systems in customers’ homes and places of business.
History of Telephone and PBX Installer Career
In 1876, the first practical device for transmitting speech over electric wires was patented by Alexander Graham Bell. The telephone device Bell invented functioned on essentially the same principle as the telephones that are familiar to us today. Both transmit the vibrations of speech sounds by transferring them to solid bodies and converting them to electrical impulses, which can travel along wires. However, technological advances in telephone systems over the past century have turned telephones into powerful instruments for communication.
Within a few years after its introduction, many customers were having the new devices installed and were being connected into local telephone systems. Four years after Bell’s patent, there were 30,000 subscribers to 138 local telephone exchanges. By 1887, there were 150,000 telephones in the United States. Long distance service developed slowly because of problems with distortion and signal loss over longer transmission lines. Over time, advances such as amplifiers on transmission lines, microwave radio links, shortwave relays, undersea cables, and earth satellites that amplify and relay signals have so improved service that today’s telephone customers expect that their telephone can be quickly linked to one of many millions of other telephones around the globe.
As telephones became a crucial part of 20th-century life, a need arose for workers who specialized in installing, removing, and repairing telephone instruments and related devices. But today’s technology has advanced to the point where fewer of these workers are needed than in the past. Once basic wiring is in place, customers can handle much of their own installation work, and telephones can be manufactured so cheaply that it is often simpler to replace instead of repair malfunctioning equipment.
The Job of Telephone and PBX Installers
When calls go from one telephone to another, they usually go through a telephone company facility that houses automatic switching equipment. For telephone calls to go through, an array of wires, cable, switches, transformers, and other equipment must be installed and in good operating order. Central office workers, cable splicers, and line repairers are among the workers who work on telephone equipment away from the customer’s premises. Telephone and PBX installers and repairers are workers who service the systems on the customer’s premises.
When customers request a new telephone line or equipment, telephone installers, also called station installers, do the necessary work. They often travel to the customer’s home or business in a vehicle that contains a variety of tools and equipment. If they must make a new connection, they may have to work on roofs, ladders, or at the top of a telephone pole to attach an incoming wire to the service line. They install a terminal box and connect the appropriate wires. On some jobs, they may have to drill through walls or floors to run wiring. In large buildings, they may connect service wires or terminals in basements or wire closets. After installing equipment, they test it to make sure it functions as it should. Telephone installers may also install or remove telephone booths, coin collectors, and switching key equipment, in addition to private and business phones.
Wear and deterioration may cause telephones to function improperly. Telephone repairers can determine the cause of such problems, sometimes with the assistance of testboard workers or trouble locators in the central office, and then repair the problem and restore service.
Steve Markowsky installs and repairs residential telephones in upstate central New York for Alltel, a communications company. When a customer has a problem, Markowsky receives the service order via computer. He then attempts to contact the customer by phone. If unable to, he then goes to the customer’s telephone interface—a box outside of the home. “With a telephone butt-in set,” Markowsky says, “I can clip into the line and listen for a dial tone, and even place a call.” If the problem is not with the outside line, Markowsky can assist customers on a per hour basis to find the problem within the home. “The trouble might be as simple as a phone off the hook.” To locate the problem, Markowsky uses a bell meter to test the phone and outlet. “If the trouble isn’t in the phone or the outlet, it’s in the wire.” Markowsky must replace wire on a daily basis.
“I carry a small number of hand tools,” Markowsky says, “like screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, side-cutters, rechargeable drill, a stapler made for stapling wires.”
Some larger users of telephone services, such as some businesses or hotels, have a single telephone number. Calls that come in may be routed to the proper telephone with PBX switching equipment located on the customer’s premises. Outgoing calls also go through what is in effect a private telephone system within the building. In addition to handling regular phone calls, PBX equipment is often used for specialized services such as electronic mail. PBX installers, also called systems technicians, set up the necessary wiring, switches, and other equipment to make the system function, often creating customized switchboards. These workers often work as part of a crew because the communications equipment they work with is heavy, bulky, and complex.
PBX repairers, with the assistance of testboard workers, locate malfunctions and repair PBX and other telephone systems. They may also maintain related equipment, such as power plants, batteries, and relays. Some PBX repairers service and repair mobile radiophones, microwave transmission equipment, and other sophisticated telecommunications devices and equipment.
Some experienced workers can handle a range of installation and repair work. They may put their skills to use handling special jobs, such as investigating unauthorized use of telephone equipment.
Telephone and PBX Installer Career Requirements
Math courses will help you prepare for the technical nature of this career, along with voc-tech, electronics, and other courses that will involve you with hands-on experiments. Computer courses will also be valuable. You should take English, speech, and other courses that will help you develop your communication skills.
Telephone companies usually prefer to hire applicants who have no previous experience with another telephone company and then train the beginners to work with the equipment used in their own system. Companies generally prefer applicants who are high school or vocational school graduates and who have mechanical ability and manual dexterity. Some employers may require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in an area such as engineering. Because of the rapid advancements of telecommunications technology, installers may be required to take continuing education courses, either as part of in-house training or through a college program.
Because installers and repairers deal with company customers, they should have a neat appearance and a pleasant manner. “I love to meet people,” Steve Markowsky says. “And I love problem solving. It’s very gratifying work.” Good eyesight and color vision are needed for working with small parts and for distinguishing the color-coding of wires. Good hearing is necessary for detecting malfunctions revealed by sound.
Many telephone employees are members of unions, and union membership may be required. The Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are two unions representing many workers.
High school courses in physics, mathematics, blueprint reading, and shop can help you gauge your aptitudes and interest in these occupations. Building electronic kits and assembling models tests manual dexterity and mechanical ability as well as providing experience in following drawings and plans. Direct work experience in this field is probably unavailable on a part-time or summer job basis, but it may be possible to arrange a visit to a telephone company facility to get an overall view of the company’s operations.
Telephone installers work for telecommunications companies. They also work for companies that provide phone equipment and services for hotels. Companies that install and service security systems for homes and businesses also employ installers.
Job seekers in this field should contact the employment offices of local telephone companies. Pre-employment tests may be given to determine your knowledge and aptitude for the work.
Newly hired workers learn their skills in programs that last several months. The programs may combine on-the-job work experience with formal classroom instruction and self-instruction using materials such as videotapes and training manuals. Trainees practice such tasks as connecting telephones to service wires in classrooms that simulate real working conditions. They also accompany experienced workers to job sites and observe them as they work. After they have learned how to install telephone equipment, workers need additional training to become telephone repairers, PBX installers, or PBX repairers.
If there are no openings in the training program at the time they are hired, new workers are assigned instead to some other type of job until openings develop. It is common for openings for installer and repairer positions to be filled by workers who are already employed in other jobs with the same company. In the future, it probably will be even more difficult for workers coming in from outside to get these jobs.
More experienced telephone installers may, with additional training, move into jobs as PBX installers or as telephone repairers. Similarly, additional training may allow telephone repairers to become PBX repairers. Some experienced workers become installer-repairers, combining installation and repair work on telephone company or PBX systems. Some workers may advance to supervisory positions, in which they coordinate and direct the activities of other installers or repairers.
In comparison with workers in other craft fields, telephone and PBX installers and repairers are generally well paid. Their actual pay rates vary with their job responsibilities, geographical region, their length of service with the company, and other factors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median hourly earnings of telecommunications equipment installers and repairers were $23.72 in 2005. Wages ranged from less than $15.21 to more than $32.21 (approximately $31,630 to $66,990 annually). Median hourly earnings in the telephone communications industry were $24.92 in 2004. Workers in this occupation generally have a low turnover rate, therefore, many workers are in the higher wage categories. Fringe benefits for these workers usually include paid holidays and vacations, sick leave, health and disability insurance, and retirement plans.
Telephone installers and repairers often do their work independently, with a minimum of supervision. Especially during emergency situations they may need to work at night, on weekends, or on holidays to restore service. Most installers are on-call 24 hours a day. Most of the work is done in the field, in the homes and offices of clients.
Some installation work is done outside, including work on poles, ladders, and rooftops, and some work requires stooping, bending, reaching, and working in awkward or cramped positions. “I work outside in the elements every day,” Steve Markowsky says. “I’m exposed to all sorts of weather. Last year, I was involved with the unbelievable devastation of an ice storm in upstate New York. Thousands of phone lines came down. Those were long hours and long weeks.”
PBX installers and repairers frequently work as part of crews. Most of their work is indoors, and it may involve crouching, crawling, and lifting.
Telephone and PBX Installer Career Outlook
Employment of telecommunications equipment installers and repairers is expected to decline through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The reasons for this drop in employment include sweeping technological changes that are making it possible to install and maintain phone systems with far fewer workers than in the past. New computerized systems are very reliable and have self-diagnosing features that make it easy for repairers to locate problems and replace defective parts. As older, less reliable equipment is taken out of service and new equipment is installed in its place, the need for repairers and installers will decline even further. Once the basic wiring is installed in a building, customers need only buy telephones and plug them into jacks wherever they want them. Customers can readily do some interior wiring and installation work without any help from the telephone company. These effects may be offset, however, by increased demand for a variety of services from phone and cable companies, including upgrading internal lines in businesses and homes and wiring new homes with fiber optic lines. The wide use of the Internet and fax machines has led to a number of homes with multiple lines. Because much business is now conducted through telephone lines, repairs during storms and other emergencies must be done more quickly and efficiently, requiring the skills of experienced installers and repairers.
Installers and repairers with additional training may be able to find work with the growing number of businesses that connect office computers and networks. Those with degrees in engineering can assist in the design for the cabling of business complexes, colleges, and other institutions requiring up-to-date communication services.
Central office and PBX installers and repairers experienced in current technology should find employment opportunities, due to a growing demand for telecommunications networks that offer multimedia services such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and video on demand.