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Fine-Tuning Your Labor Strategy for the Changing AV Market Landscape

IT server maintenance
(Image credit: Erik Isakson/Getty Images)

As an executive in the AV industry, I’ve seen first-hand the accelerating trend toward more AV integrators using highly skilled installers and technicians provided by outsourced labor firms, also called audiovisual labor subcontractors. I’ve seen the need for those kinds of labor services steadily grow year-over-year for the last decade. More importantly, I’ve witnessed a change of mindset in AV in general, and a maturing of the industry. After all, it was already well known and accepted in the IT realm that outsourcing was needed in many job scenarios—integrators realized the advantages of hiring extra technical help on a per-contract basis, allowing scaling up and down to demand more readily.

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But perhaps counterintuitively, while there were AV freelancers out there working independently, few companies focused on providing these labor services at the highest levels—emphasis on “at the highest levels.”  That changed more recently, as a small number of AV labor subcontracting companies rose to top, based on the superior experience, training, and certifications of the technicians in their stable. 

The skill level of technicians in these A-level companies goes way beyond freelancer status. In fact, they are not freelancers at all, but employees of the providing company, and their abilities equal those of the best technicians/installers on the payroll of the best AV integrators.

Subcontracting in 2020

But as you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, that trend was there, but 2020 changed the dynamics of the AV market ... where do we go from here?”

As we head into 2021, the trend toward using highly skilled installers and technicians provided by only the best outsourced labor firms is being fast-tracked. As with so many other tech trends—more use of collaboration/videoconferencing technology for example—2020 fast-tracked trends that had already been building momentum pre-COVID. But in the case of highly skilled AV labor, 2021 and beyond will see not just more demand for highly skilled AV technicians on a contract basis, to mitigate risk in a more uncertain landscape, but also a new kind of demand as more skillsets move to the forefront. Understanding the new dynamics can help position your AV company for greater profitability going forward.

[The Integration Guide to AV in a Post-COVID-19 World (opens in new tab)]

As both a business executive and an electrical engineer in the trenches of jobs and tapped into the technical nuances of this industry, here are my key predictions and prescriptions around AV installation and services as we head into 2021.

Small- to Mid-Sized AV Integrators and Outsourced Labor

More small- to mid-size AV integrators will use highly skilled installers and technicians provided by top outsourced labor firms. Mitigating risk is a good business practice in any economic environment, but 2021 is ushering in too many unknowns, on both the supply and demand side, to risk ramping up on-payroll staffing either too quickly or too slowly. While larger AV firms can more easily average out staffing needs across more jobs, small- to mid-size integrators are more at risk in 2021-2022 as they try to simultaneously grow their companies, lesson risk, and increase profitability. 

They are realizing that the benefits of outsourcing are even greater for them while they’re in the earlier stages of company growth or expansion. For mid-sized AV integrators, for example, miscalculating the amount of on-payroll employees they need could mean the difference between profit and loss not just for one installation contract but for the entire year.

 For many mid-size or small integrators, the use highly skilled, outsourced AV labor, will move from an ad hoc and project-specific tactic to a company growth strategy.

Increased Use of Outsourced Programmers

In addition to labor installation services, AV integrators will now need outsourced programmers, project managers, AV pros experienced in site surveys and engineering drafting, and other specialties beyond just installation technicians. In the recent boom years of AV, most integrators had on-staff programmers and project managers, for example, but the 2020 disruptions saw the shedding of some of those positions at the integrators. 

[How to Get Started at AV Programming (opens in new tab)]

To mitigate risk in 2021, they will tread cautiously as they ramp up to meet demand, by outsourcing some of those functions. The good news is that the best AV labor subcontracting companies now have people highly experienced in those specialties available to fill the gap.

Raising the Quality Bar

The bar will be raised even higher for quality, experience, and both hard and soft skillsets of AV technicians, project managers, and associated positions—and don't forget about the more IT-centric experience and qualifications, with the huge demand for UC and collaboration solutions. 

A tighter market—even with the surge in demand for AV that 2021 will bring—will necessitate that both end users and employers be more selective. And most integrators just don’t have the bandwidth to find much less vet the qualifications of all prospective technicians. And only the very top outsourced labor firms will excel at this: not only hiring the best-qualified technicians, but also training them, getting AV and IT certifications for them, and making them available to any integrator when and where they’re needed.

The Bottom Line

The AV integration firm—and in some cases a distributor or even a manufacturer—can now easily access the extra installation help they need, as they need it. They clearly see the value: lower labor costs, easier scalability to project demand, and more cost-effective project completion in areas where they may not otherwise have had teams ramped up, and saving on installation travel costs. 

2021 will only accelerate this trend as mitigating risk in a more cautious, yet growing, market will move to the forefront. But improved profitability will only follow if they choose the top, most trusted labor providers.

Frank Papayianis is president of Atlantis Partners, headquartered in Fairfield, NJ. Atlantis Partners—which has offices nationwide—provides AV and IT installation contract manpower to systems integrators.