Preparing Students for Careers in Telecommunications, with Shirley Brown-Harrison

Posted: August 29, 2022

Episode Description

The telecommunications industry is growing, and more people are needed to meet workforce needs. Shirley Brown-Harrison, a senior instructor at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Hohenwald, discusses how TCAT is preparing students for telecommunications careers. Focusing on three learning objectives, Brown-Harrison’s team ensures the students are prepared for industry careers. Those objectives are:

  1. Teach fundamentals and teach them well
  2. Help students develop critical-thinking skills
  3. Learn to learn


Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio, conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, health care, and other topics impacting our communities.

Carrie Huckeby: Hello. I’m Carrie Huckeby, executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. We have as our guest today Shirley Brown-Harrison, who is the senior instructor of electromechanical electronic systems and telecommunications at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Hohenwald. And while Shirley has over two decades of experience in industrial electronics, including being the first female industrial maintenance technician to work at Crossville Ceramics back in the early 2000s. Then she switched to teaching. She’s been teaching full time since 2006. Shirley, thanks for joining me.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Thank you for having me, Carrie.

Carrie Huckeby: So let’s start the conversation with giving us an overview of the telecommunication program at TCAT, how long it’s been offered, and an overview of what you do.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Sure. We’ll start with the mission of the program. It is to prepare students for gainful employment in a telecommunications field by providing students with fundamental theories, principles, experiments and real world experiences in the telecommunications industry. Students will learn through hands on applications, utilizing trainers and real world projects. In the first term, students will study several courses, including intro to telecommunications, copper and fiber optic based systems and telephony. And in these courses they can earn industry certifications from C-TECH. Students will also study customer service, orientation and safety and worker characteristics. They will earn a certification through their safety and customer service as well. We all understand how important those are on the job. The second term concentrates more on the computer side of things. Concentrates on hardware, software such as Windows, Mac, Linux, storage, networking system management, file management. All things that have to do with the computer side of the responsibilities of a telecommunications technician. And we utilize a system that called Testout and prepares them to take their CompTIA A+ certification. The third and final term students will study practical applications to include satellite fundamentals, smart technology systems, audio, video and security surveillance, coupled with practical applications. And they also can earn more certifications through C-TECH, SBCA Satellite and ETA for the STS certifications.

Carrie Huckeby: There’s a lot packed into that program, isn’t there?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Yes, ma’am. It’s a year long. It’s 12 months in length, 1,296 compact hours. But it is very fast paced, a lot going on. But students, there’s a lot of hands on. And students generally, they absolutely love that side of things, the hands on side.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. It’s more fun to learn hands on versus reading or lecture, I’m sure. So I’m curious, where did your interest in telecommunications technology begin?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Well, you know, I’ve taught electromechanical for a long time, and I’m now teaching electronic systems, but I used to teach it. And then I kind of went more just electromechanical and then back. So there’s a lot of overlap between the programs. And the overlap, I mean, things that are in common and before telecommunications, you know, I’d say my real passion was in electromechanical with the industrial equipment and the automation – the automated computer side of things. And with that, it’s you’re being trained to be a maintenance technician, but you also have to understand IP addresses and networking, and then some of that math. And is this cable good? You know, just all the things that even though it’s industrial, it’s still computers and part of the telecommunications world. So, you know, having kind of grown with computers throughout my years of teaching, you know, I just that’s really where the interest stemmed. Just wanting to learn and understand more about those areas.

Carrie Huckeby: Right. Because it’s very foundational. You know, if you start with all of that, then there’s so many directions that you go if you have a good understanding of how all that works. How do you get the word out about the telecommunication program? How early do you get into the high schools to be able to to talk about the program or any of your TCAT options?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: You know, we have a recruiter at TCAT. We just hired another recruiter. So we’re approaching it from that side of things. I know we have some college fairs already scheduled at the high schools. So before this year, dual enrollment was open for juniors and seniors only. And so we certainly tried to target them to come to class. And hopefully, you know, when they come, they’ll get exposed to the program and continue on after high school. But last year or either earlier this year, legislation changed where we’re going to actually dual enroll from ninth grade to 12th grade. So that’s kind of change our strategy a little bit. Also, it upped the funding because there was only so much grant funding available for dual enrollment. So that’s kind of changed our strategy a little bit. But, you know, so we’re constantly doing those things. Our recruiters are. I’m trying to recruit all I can, you know, by word of mouth. And just for example, this week, our Louis County CTE director is Ms. Trina Weeks was on campus with our financial aid director, and they invited me in to brainstorm some ideas about how to increase high school dual enrollment. And, you know, last year during the height of the pandemic, I created a video. I never really thought about it, but it made a lot of sense. My husband teaches eighth grade social studies, and he said we can’t have – because of COVID. We have career day, and we cannot have people come in the class. Could you make me a video, you know, highlighting your programs? And I said, sure.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: So I did that. In the pandemic, we purchased all GoPros, all the instructors were, and so went around and made some short video clips. And then our IT guy, he is great to be able to put that all together and made about 20 minutes long video. And so I had that idea. I thought for a while, we’re just missing the boat per say with our high school students. I mean, and just with the public in general, because we have the digital age right at our fingertips. But I just felt like we weren’t utilizing it as much as we should have. So that was my suggestion to her. And I explained to her what we did with the video and even shared it with her, and she was all on board. She’s contacted me. She’s going to buy her people GoPros, she’s showing videos everywhere. And then we are tasked at the TCATs in September, I think our deadline, is to make a recruiting video for the school, not just for my programs. So we’re constantly doing stuff like that, social media, tours. And that’s what she said. She said, you know, the tours are great. We can bring students on campus, but there’s so much going on, and we have such a limited time. It’s a much better captive audience with something like this. So I really think that’s going to pay a lot of dividends in the future.

Carrie Huckeby: I think it’s great that you can go in at ninth grade now because I think the sooner you can start presenting those options and those careers and get their interest, the better. And of course, I always love video. You know, in today’s time, we tend to like video so much better than reading. And you do a good job on your social media. I follow you. So, you know, I don’t think there’s any one way to get the word out. So it’s good that you’re using all of those. We do hear in the news a lot today about educational cost and student loans and that there are other options out there versus whether it’s academic or trade. Tell us a little bit about the cost of the telecommunications program. You said it’s a 12 month, 1,296 hour program. Tell us about the cost and how the Tennessee Promise applies to that.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Yes, the total program cost is $5,615. So breaking that down, that is for $4,008 for a year of tuition and a little over $1,600 for books and supplies. So, yes, the Tennessee Promise. We are an eligible institution for the Tennessee Promise. I do want to mention that as you had inquired about student loans and asking about did we offer those. We do not offer student loans. So the TCAT system, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in general, we do not offer student loans. So most everyone that comes here has some funding. There’s very few that pay all out of pocket. Some might have to pay a little. But grant funding wise, it’s paid for. So I’ll give you an example. I looked up the Tennessee Promise eligibility requirements and of course, our graduating seniors of the class of 2023, they have a deadline. So in November 1st, they have to apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. March 1st, they have to have applied for the FAFSA, the free application for student financial aid. They have to complete 8 hours of community service by a deadline. And then by the spring of next year, they have to apply to enroll in a class. So that means basically they’ll fill out the application online and get on a waiting list. So pell grants, that is federal money. And when they fill out their FAFSA, it basically looks at all their grant funding options. And so if a student qualifies for full pell, we would still call that the promise, but that would be an amount of $6,895 a year. So we do have some students that do qualify for that based on their parents income and that kind of thing. So if that’s the case, this student would have $1,280 left. So they would actually have school paid for and almost $1,300 dollars left. Now, that’s all split over three terms. It’s divvied up. But, they could actually, and I mean, I have one in my class right now, who qualifies for full pell and gets money back. So that’s not uncommon. Just depends on their financial circumstances.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, it’s always nice to have money left versus owing money, right?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Oh, absolutely. And they can use that money however they want to. They can use it for their living expenses, their gas, food, whatever. So they can do that. I also wanted to mention the Tennessee Reconnect. That is for adults that are 23 and older. And it is $2,000 a year and then our part of the lottery scholarship, which is called the Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, is $2,000 a year. So I spoke to financial aid and they said between those two, if they’re an adult student and basically they have not used those monies before, then they can get every bit of their tuition paid. And they’re pretty much they’ll just owe their books and supplies. And that’s really the same for the Tennessee Promise, even if a student does not qualify for any other aid above tuition, it at least guarantees tuition is paid for incoming seniors.

Carrie Huckeby: I think that’s a really good point about the Tennessee Reconnect, because we do talk a lot about getting in the high schools. But there are older students that are looking for new careers or want to do something different. And there is such a workforce shortage right now in telecommunications that that’s a great opportunity to do something different if you’re looking for a new direction.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Absolutely.

Carrie Huckeby: So how many students have completed the telecommunications program?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: So since it started, it’s a fairly new program. I went back and was thinking about this. We have 11 completers, and of those 11 one changed career paths, and he will be starting in the EMT program in the fall, which is fine. You know, we have students come in, they’re young. He was 17. You know, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. And so he decided he wanted to switch programs, but he still earned enough credentials here that he’s a completer. One, went to work. So looking at our numbers, we have a 91% completion rate since we started and a 90% went to work in a related field.

Carrie Huckeby: Wow, that’s good.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Yeah. So I mean, we typically I mean, our accreditation agency, which is COE or the Council on Occupational Education, we’re in the middle of our accreditation process right now, but every year we have to report for them, we have to have 60% of our students have to complete and that is at least to a certificate or diploma level. 70% of those 60% have to go to work in a related field. If they pursue additional education that counts as that or goes to military. So basically, we don’t keep our jobs if we’re not putting people to work in the related field. So everything I’m doing is trying to train them to go to work in the telecom industry.

Carrie Huckeby: Well, do you help students actually find jobs or do you find that employers tend to reach out to you and say, do you have anybody qualified or ready to graduate?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: You know, it’s a little of both, but there’s not a shortage of people contacting me. They’ll email me. They’ll call. I make contacts like when we attended the Tennessee Broadband Association, I made contacts there. I saw an ad in the paper this week, my local paper. So I had a student that was working for that company, so I called him. “Hey, can I get the lowdown? What’s going on there?” And so there’s all kinds of ways. So there’s never any I guess, what we’ll say, there’s never any guarantees that there will be things available when students graduate. But in today’s time, you know, I’m still ramping up the program, so I’m not putting out – there’s way more need than the students I have to put out. So that’s where we have to come back on the front end. And what we spoke about earlier, focus on recruiting and getting the word out. “Hey, this is something you can do.” And one thing I spoke to the CTE director about this week was high school students could actually come in and do those fiber and copper and some of the the first term – which those are all those are all industry recognized certifications that are on the approved list for the Tennessee Department of Education that will be paid for. I’ve lobbied and pushed for those to be on that list, so they will pay for all of those supplies. And so they can not only get high school credit, your college credit, certifications, and they could potentially just graduate high school and go to work in the telecom industry because they would already have the necessary skills.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, great. So I think my next question was about some of the challenges that you face, or you think about and you’ve mentioned a few of those that finding students and recruiting and getting them into the program. Are there other things, equipment, awareness, and we touched on awareness a little bit, but are there other things that challenge you with the program that you have problems you have to solve to keep things running?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s always challenges. So one of things I thought about with this question was we got contacted, I don’t know, several months ago by a company that was wanting us to partner with them to be the educational piece of a government approved co-op. And once I really got to looking at what they wanted, it was more tower climbing and wireless. And it’s a little different slant. You know, it’s a different outcome than what we’re doing now. Now, I understand that’s a need for the telecom industry, but we had to come back and say, you know, that’s not what we’re doing right now. You know, that’s, you know, we had to kind of say that’s not what we’re doing. So I don’t know who’s doing that, but that’s not what we’re specifically teaching. So that’s one thing that I think about as a hurdle. You know, I think about just trying to make sure that I’m educated in the industry and know what equipment industry is using. And so we’re working some things to try to purchase some of the expensive equipment like splicers and OTVRs because we know fiber is is the big thing right now in telecom. It’s not the only thing, but it is probably the biggest thing going on right now. So just trying to make sure that they are as prepared as possible when they go out into industry.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, that makes sense. When you stepped into the role as the instructor of the telecommunications program, you were probably thinking more about the immediate need. You know, the class needed an instructor, but now that you’ve been doing it a little while, where would you like to see the program three years from now or five years from now?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: I would like to see different options like I just spoke about. Whether it be for this other path where we partner with someone, and we know we’re taking care of the educational piece and they’re getting on the job training for that. I think their word is in an approved apprenticeship, I think is their term. So I would like to have more than one path because there’s certainly going to be more than you know. And our students take over multiple places and go to work. So I’m not saying that, but I guess it’s just a totally different path. I’d like to have at least a couple, if not more different paths that students can say, “Okay, you can choose A, B or C.” I would like to have the program, I mean, just full and and kind of bursting at the seams, as they say. And so much so that I would need to hire someone to help me run it because I know that’s the need with all the money that I see coming down to ensure that we have high speed Internet in the rural areas. We’re going to need that many people in the telecom industry, I think.

Carrie Huckeby: Yes. Yes, I agree. You know, there’s still a lot of work to be done connecting Tennesseans here and across the nation with broadband. And, of course, when the networks get built, they have to be maintained. And, you know, there is some troubleshooting and customer service that’s involved in that. So it’s definitely an industry that is growing. And I understand what you’re saying about the different direction, because I was just talking to one of my board members this morning about another training program where they cover the OSHA 10, you know, the flag training for right of ways, the CPR, the CDLs, chainsaw training. So you’ve certainly got that outside operational, and then you’ve got that network side as well. So it’s great that you’re thinking about that and trying to figure out how to bring that together. I follow you, as I said, on social media, and you guys do a good job of that, and I see that enrollment is in full swing right now. How’s that going for you for this upcoming term?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: It’s going great. We’re still recruiting. Still trying to get more. I have two in telecommunications, two in electronics and six or seven and electromechanical. So, again, I’d really like to to ramp up the telecom side of things. And we’re just continuing to work on that. It just takes time once you, but I’m a firm believer. If you build it and you let everybody know what you built, they will come.

Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, I think that middle part is really important. You can build it, and you tell everyone about it. And I certainly hope our podcast here will help do that and help get the word out. Is there anything else, Shirley, you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Yes, I would like to there’s a couple of main points here. And just for whoever’s listening, just to understand kind of the environment of the classroom. Our classrooms at TCAT for the most part are what we call self-paced competency based. And so while I do like to lock step students as much as I can through some of these courses, sometimes it’s just better that way. The opportunity for the self-paced approach that is there, and what that does for students that want to that are really motivated and want to push and work hard, they can finish early. So everything is laid out that you have a year of funding. We have estimated times, but it is possible that students could finish early and go to work. It is possible they could do the first term, which is four months, and go to work. Some of these 11 that I told you, that’s all they did. And they’re still working for some of the fiber contractors to this day. So really a person can come into the first term and say, that’s all I want and leave. They can do second term, okay, that’s all, I want and leave. Or third. I mean, it’s really unique in that way. You know, in the classroom environment, as an instructor, I like to say I wear a lot of hats, you know, make sure all the necessary equipment is there.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: I guide students through courses and projects and while at the same time allowing them, enough freedom to navigate the process of learning and managing their time. Because we really try to treat this – this is their job. They come here 6 hours a day, five days a week, or 30 hours a week. And we treat it like they were going into a job. You know, they have responsibilities on their side as far as paperwork and keeping up with their things that way. And, you know, three things I like to just whichever program it is, three things I like to accomplish. We approach learning with three main objectives. Number one, teach fundamentals. Teach them well. Fundamentals they don’t change. Number two, help students develop their critical thinking skills. And number three, just learn to learn. Learn how to – just like this morning with our opportunities that we had – you have to roll with the punches, as they say, and figure out how to just accomplish the task at hand, even though there’s going to be obstacles. So while I do lecture, I do lockstep some, it’s also an adult environment where, you know, and students, especially the ones coming out of high school for the first time, they have their destiny. What they really want is somebody not telling them every step to do.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: They have that in front of them. And sometimes they take off and sometimes some struggle with it. So I just want to throw that in as to the classroom environment and management of it. And when I asked a couple of students yesterday, some of my better students, I said, you know, when it says give an overview of what you do, I thought they had some great comments. And I just wanted to share. One student said that, you know, I am “someone that educates, teaches and informs students to the best of their ability to do said task by themselves or with little to no guidance.” Another student said “someone that presents information in a way that all students can learn, provide all equipment and guidance throughout the program, and help students develop troubleshooting skills and understand complex networking systems with minimal guidance.” And the reason is it’s not that – telling is not teaching. Teaching is helping best prepare students, as best I can, go out and go into the world and be successful. And so we just have a worklike environment. And so I just wanted to stress that as a classroom environment, and I’ve got to tell you right now that graduated associates degrees, and they absolutely – they’re glad they got their degrees, but they really just wanted more hands on, and they’re just so happy they came back to TCAT.

Carrie Huckeby: I love that. “Telling is not teaching.” So true. And I had the opportunity to visit the campus last month, and I was really impressed with the program, the students, the way they did work through their segments individually, and then they went to the next one. You know, I was impressed with the equipment set up, but Shirley, I was more impressed with your knowledge and the passion that you show for that program and towards those students to ensure that they walk out of there prepared. So we really thank you for what you’re doing in preparing those telecommunications workers because we’re certainly going to need them.

Shirley Brown-Harrison: Thank you so much Carrie. I appreciate that.

Carrie Huckeby: So my guest has been Shirley Brown-Harrison, the senior instructor of electromechanical electronic systems and telecommunications at TCAT Hohenwald. And you’ve been listening to Lead Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association – cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.

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