Category Archives: Volunteerism

The Future of Amateur Radio

children are the futureGoing through Yahoo group posts this morning I came across something on the Ham Instructors group that caught my attention, a discussion on the demographics of new hams and whether or not the focus for recruiting should continue to be centered on the idea that children are the future of ham radio.

Many hams, maybe even most hams, share a basic story line. They got interested in radio as a pre-teen or teen, usually exposed to radio by family, friends, or social event. Most drift away from radio as they go through various stages of life when they are swamped with the normal stuff life tends to throw at us all, school, marriage, having kids, career, the usual. Later on as things settle down radio creeps back into their life. Some manage to get licensed during that early exposure, some end up waiting several decades before getting a ticket.

In my opinion, providing the young an opportunity to catch the radio bug is the best bet. They may never actually get an amateur radio license and their attention may turn down many different paths. But the likelyhood of that exposure being beneficial to the amateur radio community down the road in some other form is immense. They would at least have some understanding and appreciation for amateur radio and its benefits to the community at large.

While I think the positions presented in the Yahoo group and associated blog posts K0NR and KB6NU are certainly worth looking into in greater depth, I think there is a more pressing matter that may affect the future of amateur radio.

Why is amateur radio experiencing a huge upswing? Basic statistics show the upswing began in 2008 shortly after the FCC dropped the code requirement for all amateur licenses. Wheather or not that decision was good for the service I will leave alone for now.

My ham path followed a derivation the one I described above. I got interested in radio as a teen back in the 80s but didn’t get my license until I was 46, only in part because of the code requirement. My reasons for finally getting my license were centered on personal emergency preparedness, serving the community, and to have fun experimenting and building RF electronics.

As a Volunteer Examiner I participate in license exam sessions and it seems that the predominant reasons for taking the license exams generally follow along with the age ranges:

Retirees & Pre-retirees are either upgrading an existing  license, had a licence but it expired and are getting back into the hobby, or always wanted to but hadn’t gotten around to it till now. Or you could say, the story we are so familiar with.

20s & 30s seem to be engineering students or engineers, Makers who have projects that require a license, or preppers.

Teens and under seem to either be in a social program like a school club or scouting. A few come from dedicated ham families.

Pretty much what you might expect, but there are a couple that might have an effect on the ham future landscape. Two categories that could pose concern.

I’ll start with Makers. By in large these are folks who embody the early spirit of amateur radio, they like to build stuff. While they bring to the table that early spirit of radio, how many of them participate in the radio community? Are they here because of one project they might need to be licensed for, or are they going to keep renewing their license and play radio alongside other Maker pursuits? Either way, I am glad they are here now. They do indeed advance the science and art of radio. Down the road however the passing interest MakerHam may drop the Ham part altogether.

The other group is of particular interest, preppers. My hats off to them if they actually get licensed, many more don’t. It is common practice for prepper groups to buy cheap Chinese ham-band radios and use them regularly on FRS/GMRS radio frequencies which is illegal, at least when it is not an emergency, but they are much less likely to get busted for that than using amateur frequencies without a callsign.

One thing to consider is the term prepper. There is a massive range of people who consider themselves preppers that covers the entire spectrum from keeping some extra food and water along with a flashlight, first aid kit, and blanket, something we all should have at a minimum by the way, to the massive underground hords and compounds guarded by paramilitary groups.

Another consideration is, do they further the science and art? Do they participate? If so, welcome aboard.

I mention these two groups of people not to place judgement, but rather to ask if they are a part of the ham community. The reason for asking is, what happens if they don’t renew their licenses? There was concern that the ham community was dwindling away, leading to a loss of tribal knowledge. What happens when non-invested license holders don’t see the benefit of keeping an unused license? Or just forget about it?

Amateure radio has been experiencing an unprecidented growth spurt over the last 8 years. We still have two years to go before the early no-code era hams begin to cycle for renewal. I would imagine the first few years after the start of the second ten-year cycle won’t see much of an effect either way, but what happens in 2020? Will we start to see a roll-off?

In general, we seem to be more focused on recruiting rather than retention. Back in the day, the code requirement acted as a filter. People with only a casual interest in amateur radio were less likely to pursue it. While it worked fairly well as such, it also filtered out people interested in radio, just not cw. Now we have no filter at all. The only impediment to getting licensed is $15 and some time studying the relatively small question pool. You can be a Technician class licensee in short order.

In life, most things are more valuable when you have to pay for them, monetarily or by blood, sweat, and tears. Personal commitment to seeing it through establishes the value. This basic principle would indicate that removal of the code requirement and as some would say, lowering the bar on the knowledge test, the sweat equity has been removed or at least lessened thereby the value, at least the perceived value for the licensee.

So now we have several issues to contend with; keeping the number of licensees up, ensuring that they keep their licenses renewed, and keeping some level of commitment to the hobby and community at large.

Frankly, I have no idea how to accomplish any of these. I don’t think we have enough data. Too many things have changed in the hobby in the last decade and we still don’t have any results from what I think may be the most impacting factor, the dropping of the code requirement. In all honesty, I doubt if we can even begin to answer these questions until 2020 and the effects can be quantified.

In the meantime, we should continue to do as we have always done, inspire and encourage the youth, at any age. Encourage fellowship among the community, Elmer whenever possible, maintain the highest personal standards, and reach out and engage the radio community and the general community at large.

The Amateur Radio preservation mantra,
“Engage, Inspire, Encourage, Educate, Participate”

~Jon KK6GXG

VE Population and Participation Analysis

What’s in a number

While looking at the number of Volunteer Examiner sessions list for California I noticed a whole lot of 0s in the number of sessions column. It seemed like a lot of hams that had signed up to be a VE weren’t following through.

I could think of a number of reasons why it might take a while to get going but the total number of VEs was holding fairly steady so it wasn’t just new people joining the ranks.

At first I was thinking it might be related to the fact that I live in California and after many years of experience in non-profit organizations the flake factor seems to be pretty high here in the Silicon Valley.

Speaking with fellow VEs at several sessions, many possibilities as to why people might not be doing sessions were put on the table. With all of these possibilities  I was developing a curiosity on the national picture of the VE population and its participation levels.

I know statistics can be twisted and manipulated to mean pretty much anything the presenter wants them to say. Qualification, classification, and various selective filtering can certainly skew the apparent meaning of raw data. Even the interpretation of raw data alone can paint a picture far from reality without knowing the real story behind the  acquisition and qualification of said data. All that being said, I am going to present my interpretation of some data.

Sources of data

When it came to the general population, where better to go that US Census Bureau. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but that’s another story. The state populations are the 2014 Estimated populations. Fortunately that data is far less important than the ham population data which is much more reliable.

Ham population data is coming from the FCC, the ARRL, and AH0A.org so I have much more faith in these numbers.

An extremely important distinction here is that the VE data is ONLY from the ARRL-VEC. There are other VECs, 13 others to be precise. (FCC VEC List) It is however fair to say that the ARRL-VEC does represent well over half of the VEs in the country. It is for this reason, I believe that the percentages will be fairly accurate, if not the total numbers.

In March 2015 the ARRL posted a report on the number of amateur radio operators along with some other demographic information. At that time the ham population in total was over 727,000 (727,354 according to AH0A.org) and the current total, according to the FCC is 733,626 as of November 14, 2015.

How it all breaks down

To put these numbers in context, the estimated 2014 US population is 322,675,314 people. That means that the 733,626 licensed hams make up only 0.23% of the national population. Of all the licensed hams in the country only 28,532 or 4.16% make up the VE population. Just for fun, this also means VEs make up 0.0088% of the national population.

Another small qualifier is in order here. District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Island, and “other” are included in the total population, total hams, and the total number of VEs. They are however excluded from upper and lower limits in the following paragraphs mainly because of extenuating geographic circumstances, also they are not statistically representative individually when compared to states. Combined they make up 4,447,151 (1.37%) of the general population, 5,774 (0.78%) of hams and 53 (0.18%) VEs.

Looking at number of hams living in each state, Oregon and Washington share the top slot by having 0.44% each of the general population holding Amateur Radio licenses, well above the national average. Louisiana and New York share the fewest number of hams in their general populations at 0.14% each well below the national average.

When it comes to the distribution of VEs by state Wyoming comes on strong with a whopping 7.9% of their hams being credentialed examiners while Utah takes the lower end of the scale at 1.8% of its ham population credentialed.

Let’s take a look at the session counts. The national average of the VEs credentialed that are listed as not having participated in a test session is 25.48%. Alaska comes in at 69.33% of its VEs having no sessions under the belt while South Dakota has only 13.04%.

In the 1-4 session category three states are in a tight cluster, Kansas at 27.65%, Montana at 27.40%, and Louisiana at 27.14%. Alaska makes a huge drop here to only 10.67% of its VEs having fewer than 5 sessions.

I didn’t go into the state totals with the 5-9 session counts because the average here drops to only 13.7%.

When we look at the overall nationwide average of VEs having participated in less than 10 sessions it is 60.07%. Alaskan VEs are at 88% under 10 and North Dakota and only 46.59% under 10.

So what does this all mean?

Well, first off it means that hams are a rare breed among our fellow citizens. We make up only one quarter of one percent of the population, and less than five percent of hams volunteered to be examiners. Of that small volunteer group, less than forty percent are actively participating as examiners.

About 11,239 people, 1.5% of hams, 0.00348% of the general population, are active VEs who have participated in 10 or more sessions.

This also means my initial response to all those zeros was not only incorrect, my whole perception of those zeros was cynical, uncharitable, and a poorly constructed knee-jerk response. Wow, what a jerk.

The fact that this tiny group of people held a desire to serve their fellow hams at all is admirable and commendable. There are so many reasons why someone might have signed up and not been able to participate. Not the least of which is there may just not be a VE group nearby.

If you live in an area that only has 1 or 2 exam sessions a year and you just happened to have a previous commitment or something happens to delay or cancel one or both of those sessions or your ability to attend them, that’s another year of 0. Even if all went well, that 10 session bar, the one I arbitrarily set, could take 5 or 10 years.

It’s easy to forget that ham radio is a hobby sometimes. Even easier to forget that we are all volunteers. I live in a very active area, in a state that has the largest ham population in the country, 14.14% of hams in the US. Which interestingly enough still only makes up 0.27% of the state’s population.

It was never a matter of thinking badly of the individuals with 0s. The thought I had was “Why bother volunteering if you’re not going to get out and do it.” I should have thought that through more clearly. Even with all the advantages I mentioned, I sent in my VE application in December of 2014 and it wasn’t until April of 2015 that I worked my first session.

In conclusion

I have been fortunate enough to have participated in 18 exam sessions in the last 8 months, and I still have at least 2 more sessions before the year is up. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to regularly participate in exam sessions and look forward to continuing the trend.

I would encourage those not as fortunate, to keep the faith and make a little extra effort to find a VE group, or start one of your own. There are few things more rewarding than handing an examinee their CSCE and congratulating them on their achievement. Young or old, new hams or upgrades, there is a spark in their eyes of all the good things to come. I am very happy and humbled to be a small part of that.

73,
~Jon KK6GXG

Commercial Element 1

fcc-seal_rgb_emboss-largeOne Commercial Element done!

I completed Element on of the commercial radio exams on Tuesday. If I sent in an application to the FCC this would qualify me for a Marine Radio Operator Permit. Since that is not a needed step for my goals I am holding on to the exam result sheet so I can turn it in with my Element 3 results after I take it and applying for the General Radio Operator Licence.  I should be ready for E3 in less than two weeks, maybe even next week. It all comes down to how much study I can get in.

Things are really busy at the day-job right now but my motivation is back up after doing well on Element 1, so I want to ride that wave as it were for as long as I can.  Once I finish E3 I plan on filing for the GROL and after that shows up in the database I will add the E8 exam and file for the RADAR rating.

The only other thing going on right now in radio for me is participation in ham radio license exam sessions as a VE (Volunteer Examiner.) Yesterday was my 13th session this year. I am hoping to pick up 6 extra sessions outside the normal 2 a month I have been doing since April when I started with the Silicon Valley VE group. I would like to complete 24 sessions this year.

That’s all for now, 73,

~Jon KK6GXG

 

2 Months? Really?

Yes, indeed it has been a long time since my last post.

No excuses, I have been distract by all sorts of things, mostly work though. As of yet I have not taken any of my commercial radio tests.

ARRL-VEC VEJust about the only thing I have managed to keep up with in radio is my regular attendance at the VE sessions. I am now up to 12 for the year with another one coming up next Saturday. This is one of those commitments that just takes precedence for me. It’s less than 4 hours, usually 3, two times a month. I can find time for this.

Tomorrow marks a shift in workload and a re-commitment to getting my commercial tests done. It looks like I will take them one at a time so I can focus more clearly on the task at hand rather than trying to shotgun them all at once.

fcc-seal_rgb_emboss-largeIt has been about 2 months since I was ready to take the Element 1 test so I need a few days to get back up to snuff on the material but I believe I can get back to consistently passing practice tests before the end of the week. This means I should be ready for a Friday or Monday test (other commitments on Saturday and Sunday).

Once E1 is out of the way I will cram on E3 and try to knock that one out of the park by October 2nd giving me 2 weeks to get it together for that test. As for Element 8, I will make plans for that once I am done with E3 and have been assigned a call for my GROL. It will just need to be an add-on.

A First

ARRL-VEC VEToday marks a first for me. Today was the first time I participated in an amateur radio license exam session as a Volunteer Examiner.

The session went well and I had the opportunity to help usher in several new hams to the Amateur Radio Service.

Also on the hit parade this morning was an invite/recruitment to work as a VE at the 2015 Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo. I will be working the Sunday, May 17th, morning shift and then floating around the faire, most likely with frequent stops at anything ham or RF electronics related. It should be a lot of fun. For more information see the Maker Faire Ham Test flyer (PDF).

If you are interested in getting your Amateur Radio license there are a lot of resources, but if I were to give only one link to get you going it would be ARRL.org/getting-licensed. As always if you have any questions send me an email, tweet, or message through any of the social media links up at the top of the right column on this page. I am always happy to answer questions.

A resource page for hams and hams-to-be is in the works.

Trying too hard

I had a plan. I had a revised plan. I had a modified revised plan. They all went to &^%$.

To the keen observer I may seem a bit bummed and or frustrated. I am.

This post may seem a bit confusing, if it does, feel free to skip over it, it’s main purpose is to provide an explanation to a few nice people who just wanted to help.

I set up a fundraising campaign to cover some of the equipment costs in getting a radio station on-the-air. In and of itself this is perfectly fine. The difficulties present themselves when I say why I want to build this station or how I plan on using it.

There are specifics that are verboten, and I get that. They are for a reason. The perceived quid pro quo of stating a goal so that sponsors may feel they are contributing to the achievement of that specified goal rather than providing the means through which this goal may (operative word) be achieved.

So what I was trying to do, cobble together a radio station through sponsorships, is okay. I just can’t promote the reasons for doing so, or what is more clearly a no-no, drawing the connecting line between sponsorships and goals.

I tried to think of a way to rephrase the whole thing to meet these needs but it just circled the drain faster so I had to shut down the whole project. I have contacted the company that was hosting the campaign and they say everything should be refunded within 2-5 business days.

Nothing has changed with my plan other than time frame. I am still building stuff from scratch, I still have equipment for the station bookmarked, and I am still saving up to assemble the station out of pocket. I can receive gifts, but I am not soliciting, now or in the foreseeable future.

The old brain was thinking volunteer work and fundraising hand-in-hand as it has for many moons, and this was just not the right time or place. My sincerest apologies for any inconvenience my zeal has caused.

If you have any questions, by all means feel free to email me.

Thanks again to those who jumped on-board, I truly appreciate you help.

~Jon KK6GXG

Volunteerism

I received some comments yesterday on my volunteer fundraising goals. While I am fairly sure the commenter was well intentioned, they ended on a sour note and I haven’t been able to shake it. So, for my own sanity and to maybe dispel some misunderstandings I decided to post about my personal volunteer experiences and goals for the future.

Over the last three and a half decades I have done quite a bit of volunteer work and paid work for non-profit organizations. I have worked with NGOs, municipal organizations, charitable non-profits, educational non-profits, and trade non-profits, not to mention small groups just trying to do good work for the community.

In all this time working with a wide range of organizations I found that there are three basic types of organization. The first type is well organized with trained leadership. This kind of organization is very good at communication, internal and external. They train volunteers for the tasks they want done and provide trained leadership at every level. They have concisely documented policies and procedures. You still run into a wide range of personality types with these organizations, but the policies and procedures ensure that the intended work still gets done.

The second type is the Old-Boys club or Clique mentality. Too much time is spent on ego stroking and back slapping to actually accomplish very much work. Organizations with lots of politicking fall into this category as well. When you need to schmooze the right person or play political games just to get your job done, this is not efficient and the served-community is not served as it should be.

The third kind of group is just poorly managed. There is no cohesive plan of action, communication is poor at best and often spotty or non-existent. There are usually some good ideas, and people who genuinely want to serve, but the organization is just not up to the challenge of getting things done well.

I have worked with all three of these types of organizations. Surprisingly I have found all three types in various scales. The size of an organization does not necessarily place it in a category. I have worked with an organization of thousands of people involved that falls into the third category and small organizations of a dozen or so that fall into the first category.

In my experience, the first category is the rarest. They are hard to find but well worth seeking out. There are of course blendings of the three, usually first/second or second/third and they tend to lean more towards one end or the other in the mix.

So what does this have to do with me and my goals for volunteering? First off, when I plan on volunteering with a group I do some research, first to find out If I think it is a good fit from my perspective, then I look at what they need from their volunteers (time, equipment and training.) I also look to see which of the three categories they fit into. When I find an organization that looks like a good fit, I try to prepare ahead of time to minimize the incoming transition period so I can hit the ground running. It helps to actually meet the organizations requirements before signing up. It’s a courtesy thing.

I have worked as a grunt, a board member, and just about everything in between and at this time I have no inclination to fix a broken organization. A lot of my volunteer history and most of my paid non-profit work has been in doing just that, fixing broken organizations. What I want to do is spend some time doing actual volunteer work.

There are specific things I am interested in doing as a volunteer; in the short-term participating as a Volunteer Examiner for FCC Amateur Radio service licenses, and actively participating in multi-mode HF/VHF/UHF traffic handling nets. In the long-term I want to extend these to teaching test preparation classes and participating as a traffic net control.

To these ends I have been certified as a Volunteer Examiner and connected with a VE group. I am scheduled to participate in my first exam session as a VE on March 21st. In preparation for working traffic nets I am now actively studying and practising CW and participating in local VHF chat nets, though nether of these are volunteer work, they are skill builders.

The specific nets that I am interested in participating with appear to be organizations that fall into that first organization type and they have specific standards for operators and the equipment they use. I don’t have the equipment needed and it will be years before I will be able to build what I would need to participate. This is why I started the fundraising project, to get a stable multi-mode station up and running to meet the requirements of the nets I want to participate with.

Are there other things I can do to volunteer time? Sure, of course there are. I have spent the last year and a half looking at local groups and opportunities. I have extended offers to volunteer to several groups and projects, only one responded, and that was several months later and less than two weeks from the event. I am looking into another club meeting tomorrow. I am hopeful that this one will work out.

Am I being picky? Absolutely. My time is valuable and I have many valuable skill sets beyond radio. I am willing to share and use them, but I am not going to throw myself at random opportunities just to say I did X number of hours of volunteer work. I want my efforts to go to a worthy organization that will have beneficial outcomes for the community. This is why I am being specific about who I volunteer with, and how I give my time.

Over the years I have seen peoples valuable time squandered away by organizations that for whatever reason were ineffective. Some of those people took this waste is stride, others did not. I am choosing to avoid this in the first place.