Students Mary Chapman, left, and Nano Portugal, right, work together with a fusion splicer and other equipment during a fiber optic technician training demonstration at Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Students Mary Chapman, left, and Nano Portugal, right, work together with a fusion splicer and other equipment during a fiber optic technician training demonstration at Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Sno-Isle students on the path to becoming fiber professionals

The state will roll out $1.2 billion to close gaps in internet access. But not enough professionals are working to build the infrastructure.

EVERETT — Thinner than hair, strung across the ocean floor, fiber broadband cables connect us all.

Yet, companies struggle to attract and retain the technicians who service these critical connections.

Ted Rodriguez, an instructor at Sno-Isle Tech Skill Center, seeks to change that.

“I need you all to work because if you don’t work, I can’t retire,” he told his students in a speech May 28.

In the next decade, the state will roll out $1.2 billion from the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program. The money is meant to close gaps in internet access, especially in rural communities. But not enough professionals are working to build the infrastructure.

Sno-Isle is the first high school to offer the Fiber Broadband Association’s Optical Telecom Installer Certification program, partnering with Whidbey Telecom and Calix to ensure the training is up to date.

Elizabeth Oropeza, 18, is an enthusiastic second-year student at Sno-Isle, on leave from her job as a wire assembler at Boeing. She could have learned the new skills on the job, but Oropeza prefers learning at a training center where she won’t have to worry about making mistakes.

“You have your peers supporting you every step of the way,” she said. “You get to fully understand something, because you’re free to learn it in any way that works for your brain.”

As a senior, she sometimes gets to teach. That helps her really understand.

“It’s a humbling experience,” she said. “I thought I knew a lot about electronics.”

But students had questions she didn’t have answers to. They built projects differently, running into mistakes she hadn’t come across. Guiding them helped her understand fiber even more.

She has applied what she learned to one of her passion projects.

One of her friends has a disability and uses crutches and wants to be like Spider-Man.

So Oropeza is working on a device to help them become their favorite superhero.

“Probably some shoulder band or connection to the shoulder and a glove with sensors,” she said. “It would read the flexion of the muscles when the arm was up and clenched it would read it an activate (webs).”

Wearing black coats and protective glasses, students demonstrated cutting fiber, a simple task that takes precision

“You need it to be on the line, perfectly cut and perfectly aligned in the machine. Make sure it’s good,” said student Aamniab Syed, 17.

“A lot of patience,” her peer Sydney Cochems added.

One of Cochems’ favorite projects involves making an electric guitar.

She doesn’t play the instrument, but looks forward having one as a decoration.

Syed said she took the class to explore her options.

“I like learning new things. So anytime there’s a new opportunity, I like to see what it’s all about,” she said.

She is planning on becoming a software engineer.

Donna Hilty, chief operating officer for Whidbey Telecom, marveled at the gender and racial diversity of the group.

She said she understood why the students are passionate about fiber.

“It’s a magical time,” she said. “These kids were partially educated during COVID. They get it. They know how important (fiber) is.”

Hilty said Whidbey Telecom continues to seek entry-level applicants with a proper certificate. Starting pay is about $25 an hour.

Ash Barnett, 18, said Sno-Isle made him become interested in school.

“Before, I was kind of floating through school, not really knowing what I was gonna do, or what was next,” he said. “It’s the first time that I’ve actually felt like I had a direction.”

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449;; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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