Learning a trade; focusing on the future

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This classroom doesn’t contain row after row of desks and chairs in front of a chalkboard.

In one room, students climb to the top of ladders to practice securing cables to ladder racks, while in the next room, they take apart or install new equipment in a telecommunications central office.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: Luke Kirk, a University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus student, practices lacing cables on top of a ladder at a course taught by Digital Network Services in Belen. The course teaches students the skills set they need to know to become certified fiber optic technicians.

James Holbrook, of Digital Network Services, said he’s trying to breathe new life into the world of fiber optics by bringing in a fresh set of professionals to the area.

“I’m trying to give affordable training to people that deserve an opportunity to get into this,” Holbrook said.

In the two years since the Belen school has been established, about 60 students have successfully received their certificates as fiber optics technicians and found a job in the sector.

Since the supply of skilled and knowledgeable CFOTs is low, companies, such as Intel, AT&T and Verizon, are constantly searching for employees, he said.

Holbrook is filling the demand by providing locals with classes that prepare them for this technical field, said Holbrook’s wife, Loretta.

“Once they understand the basics of it, we get them a job doing the work, because there’s not a lot of people that understand fiber optics, especially in this area,” he said.

The goal of offering such training is to offset Velencia County’s unemployment rate, which is one of the highest in the state, Holbrook said.

He opened DNS in 2010, where he completed telecommunications contracts with about 15 nationwide companies, but soon noticed there weren’t qualified locals he could recruit to complete the jobs with him.

“You know, I’ve been in this 18 years and everywhere I go, I have to take people with me,” Holbrook said. “There’s not a skill set in this area where we’re in, so I just decided to put a school up.”

Through hands-on training, Holbrook introduces students to a variety of areas within fiber optics to pinpoint students’ niche, which then opens up more employment opportunities with higher pay.

“What I’m trying to do is give them a little bit more knowledge than what is expected, so when they walk in there they are in a winning environment,” he said.

This training brings someone who has two to four weeks of training to the same level as someone who has six months to a year of experience.

“I give them scenarios and show them pictures telling them, ‘This is what happens when you do this. If you don’t do this, this could happen,’” Holbrook said.

Upon completing the course, students can either receive a certificate for completing the course or their certification as an certified fiber optics technician upon passing the exam through the Fiber Optic Association.

Besides teaching students how to do their job, Holbrook aims to instill life skills within the students that will set them up for success in the future, including responsibility, stability, dedication, attention to detail and respect.

DNS is one of three schools in the state that teaches students the craft of fiber optics, Holbrook said

The school partnered with University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus to offer this training for free through a nonaccredited course for 100 students, which began on Jan. 28.

Sandia Labs has approached DNS about creating a similar course for them, Holbrook said.

Being a fiber optics technician can be demanding, physically and mentally, since technicians work long hours, sometimes in inclement weather and away from home for three to six weeks at a time.

Holbrook’s been speaking with local branches of telecommunications offices, such as Verizon and AT&T, to recruit locals for jobs.

“I’m trying to get them to notice, ‘Hey you know what? We’re here in Belen. We’re willing to travel anywhere you need us, but we would like local work you have also,’” he said.

When Holbrook left the Army as a sergeant with experience in field artillery shooting cannons, he thought companies would hire him because of his military experience, but he found out he was wrong.

“I thought, ‘They’re hiring all of these veterans. Great! All I got to do is show up, and man they’re going to hire me, right?’ Man that was a rude awakening,” he said.

The positions he applied for frowned upon Holbrook not having previous experience.

He later received a job doing apartment maintenance in Alabama when his cousin got in touch with him asking if he was interested in replacing outdated equipment in switch rooms.

That’s when his mentor, an influential man in the fiber optics industry, took Holbrook under his wing and taught him everything there was to know about fiber optics.

In exchange for training, his mentor asked Holbrook to teach others the right way to do this craft.

“It’s like that saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he can eat for a lifetime,’” he said.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else. It’s like this is my drug, I guess if you call it that. It’s my addiction. It’s what I do.”

John Silva, a DNS graduate, stumbled upon the school one day when Loretta, his former karate teacher, saw him causing trouble on the streets of Belen.

The 19-year-old described himself as a hoodlum in high school, but that all changed when he began taking DNS classes in August 2010.

In high school, Silva not only used drugs, but sold them as well. DNS helped him see that he had potential and shouldn’t limit himself to living “the street life.”

“They didn’t let me settle for less,” Silva said. “They showed me I could do so much more than just sitting back and doing nothing with my life and just being another statistic.”

Silva now has pride in what he does and has inspired others in his family to reach a similar place.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.

For information about DNS, call 250-9986, or visit www.dns-usvets.com.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.