WILSON – It seemed only fitting that the former Lee Ford car dealership in Wilson, N.C., would be the site for holding an intense, four-and-a-half-day “boot camp” devoted to teaching another life-changing technology — fiber optics.
From Nov. 11 through 15, Wilson enjoyed another historic first for the community with its Fiber Boot Camp, a workforce training program developed by Greenlight, Wilson Community College and the Gig East Exchange, and housed at the new Lee Technology Center.
After establishing Wilson as North Carolina’s first Gigabit City, Wilson’s community-owned, fiber-to-the-home network experienced enormous growth (now serving more than 10,800 households) and that growth has created local jobs. But as Gene Scott, Greenlight’s general manager of Outside Plant, explained, that growth also created a frustration.
“I had good-paying, advanced-skill jobs available in the community, but I could not find the skilled workforce to fill those positions,” Scott said.
That made Scott dream: maybe Wilson could train that future workforce.
“We hold a leadership position in this field,” Scott said. “Maybe there was a way to make Wilson a fiber training center for the region, for the state (and beyond).”
Wilson Community College stepped up to the plate as an enthusiastic partner to see how that dream could be tested. In the early winter months this year, WCC offered a 10-week, Fiber Optic Basics pilot course, utilizing Greenlight employees and the generous contributions of various companies who supply fiber optics materials and equipment that make the community’s fiber network blast.
“We were shocked,” Scott said. “The class filled to capacity right quick. People came from as far away as Salisbury to attend, a two-hour drive each way once a week, for 10 weeks.”
He added, “Affordability was a big factor in our approach. Most fiber certification classes run a few thousand dollars. We want this untapped workforce to have a chance at this training. Our 10-week course was $140.”
The course received an outpouring of positive feedback.
“That told us we were on to something. We continue to learn with each step,” Scott noted.
So they tested another format. One of the students, a WCC staff member, offered a creative idea.
“What if we had a fiber boot camp. Something where folks did not have to drive back and forth, but could stay here and get 10 weeks of training in five days?”
That could open the training up to a larger region.
Establishing Wilson as a regional hub for tech innovation is a central mission of the community’s new Gig East Exchange. When Darren Smith, manager of the Exchange, heard of Greenlight’s program, they were all in.
Scott once again tapped into the enthusiasm of Wilson Community College, and into the generosity of various fiber equipment providers like OFS, AFL, Preformed Line Products, Utility Service Agency and Graybar. Once again, at $145 for four and a half days of training, the class filled to capacity.
“To our amazement,” Scott said, “we had representatives from as far away as Asheville sign up.”
Students ran the gamut from ages 20 to 65-plus, and called places like Jacksonville, Pamlico Sound, Beaufort County, Rocky Mount, Raleigh and surrounding rural areas their home.
Over the next four and a half days, students received a combination of in-depth lectures from the history of fiber optics, to the intricacies of the electronics involved, to outside plant and how to design neighborhood fiber networks.
“Energy levels in the classroom definitely peaked when the hands-on training began,” Scott said.
Students learned how to build fiber enclosures and then began splicing fiber.
“I think that is one of the pieces our Greenlight staff enjoyed the most. Passing on their expertise. This is what we do,” Scott said.
Then there were the side benefits for the community that were never anticipated.
“We tested the idea of students staying in Wilson to cut down on drive times, and that was popular,” Scott said. “But staying in the community meant people from across the state and in the region were able to experience Wilson and what we do best. They stayed in our hotels, they ate in our restaurants, and I even learned from them about a few new good places to eat that I did not even know about, and I grew up and live here.”
When asked if it was a success, Scott responded: “When you’ve spent four and a half days, eight hours a day talking about all things fiber optics, and the feedback you receive is ‘need more time,’ I would say ‘yes.'”
Plans are already brewing to go further with lightly touched topics and organizing a field trip to Wilmington, for both 2019 training cohorts, to see how Corning fiber-manufactures these glass strands, each the size of a hair.
“The possibilities mirror the infinite capacity of fiber optics,” Scott quipped. “Wilson is a leader in fiber-optic expertise and our goal is to pass that forward, for our community, for our state and, honestly, well beyond. This is an advanced-skill workforce training program in a core technology on which the entire Internet depends.”
Next on his list, Scott sees a two-year program feeding through the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology’s high school like the early college program in which Wilson Community College is currently engaged. Students would graduate with both their high school degree and a two-year associate’s degree in fiber optics.
The Gig East Exchange anticipates short spin-off classes happening in its new innovation hub, anticipated for completion in downtown Wilson next spring. And Wilson Greenlight sees more hires on the horizon and “putting a whole lot more fiber in everyone’s daily diet.”
The Gig East Exchange technology hub is home to start-ups, entrepreneurs, and creators. It’s also used as a co-working space and will be home to other programs currently in development.