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Broadband Boot Camp provides intro to growing field

Shawn Frandrup of Prescott (left) and Brad Willkinson of River Falls work on splicing together thin glass fiber optic lines at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College’s Broadband Boot Camp June 17. The program seeks to generate interest in careers in broadband among displaced workers. Frandrup and Willkinson attend in-class sessions at WITC’s New Richmond campus. Submitted photo

Brad Willkinson of River Falls held a section of what appeared to be a wire so thin that it was barely visible. However, it was not wire at all, but a glass fiber optic line, and Willkinson's task was to splice a couple of ends of it together. That's where a device called an Optical Fusion Splicer came in.

It was another day at the Broadband Boot Camp that wrapped up June 20 at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. Made possible by a federal IMPACT grant, the goal of the classes that started June 10 was to introduce people to the work and opportunities in the broadband industry. As fiber optics are increasingly used to carry internet, telephone, television and data signals, demand for workers in the industry is high.

WITC's hope is that the boot camp experience will encourage students to enroll in a WITC Broadband Academy program or to seek a position with a company that will offer additional training, according to Dan Schullo, coordinator of the program.

Willkinson's hope is that the experience might lead him on a new career path after the closing of River Falls' Shopko store left him out of work. Fellow student Shawn Frandrup of Prescott hopes the experience will help him out of a slump.

"We are introducing the students to broadband," Schullo said. "The boot camp condenses an eight-week class down to eight days so they get a grasp of some of the fundamentals of the industry."

And one of the fundamentals is splicing together fiber optic lines. It's a relatively simple procedure that people can be trained to do, even if they don't have extensive background in technology.

"I've been working retail for 18 years and this is the third time the store I'm working for is going through liquidation," said Willkinson, 40. "I thought it was time to look into other things."

Workforce Resource's presence at a job fair for displaced Shopko workers led him to the boot camp.

"It was something related to an area I'm interested in," Willkinson said. "When I was a student at UW-River Falls, I worked at the IT help desk. It is a lot of material, but it is extremely interesting, and it's exposing me to the programs available at WITC. Broadband is one of the areas I'm considering."

"I had been working in construction for the past seven years and have been in a slump," said Frandrup, 33. "I thought this might be similar to what I already knew. Working in construction, I worked with a lot of electrical lines. The tools, the stripper, cleaning up wires and running cables in fiber optics is similar to running power to a house."

Frandrup, who attended in-class sessions of the camp with Willkinson at the WITC-New Richmond campus, said he enjoyed the boot camp and is considering enrolling in the broadband program.

"The teachers were really cool; they were easy to talk to," he said. "I understood the stuff pretty well. If I can handle two kids, I can handle this."

"I was interested in broadband to begin with," said Brady Hrdlicka, 18, of Rice Lake. "I love technology, and when I saw this on the WITC website, I thought I would give it a try." He added that he plans on enrolling in the Broadband Academy in the fall.

The boot camp included lab time and much online study, and some field trips. On June 17 the group toured Mosaic Telecom in Cameron.

"We went to see what the workplace was like and the opportunities available," Schullo said. "Mosaic is really focused on providing fiber optics to the home. There are some telecommunications companies out there that are really hurting for people."

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