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AT&T breakup sparks companies' demand for phone know-how

How well prepared are American businesses for the management challenges they face now that American Telephone & Telegraph has broken up? For a medium-size corporation - a regional bank, for example - costs for phone and data transmission lines can amount to millions of dollars a year. Are the staffs of such companies up to the job of telecommunications management in the post-divestiture world - deciding whether to buy or lease equipment, and what kind, and from whom, and which long-distance carrier to choose?

Well, yes and no. What is clear is that telecommunications management is going to be a growing career field.

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''The divestiture has occurred very rapidly, and because of this, almost every telecommunications department has had to change itself very rapidly,'' says Ronald O. Brown, academic coordinator for telecommunications at Northeastern University and a consultant with Coopers & Lybrand. ''There have been some strains and growing pains. There is a shortage of trained people in this emerging profession. Good telecommunications managers are not able to find skilled help. Salaries have taken off.''

''Most of the large corporations have pretty sophisticated staffs,'' says Carol M. Heller, senior manager of major accounts for MCI Communications, who works primarily with Fortune 500 companies in the Northeast. ''They're aware of the uncertainties.''

This, the implication is, is about all that can be expected of anyone right now.

But George Peirce, marketing manager at New England Telephone, says, ''Businesses are going to be in for a rude awakening to find that expertise is not available at the drop of a hat.'' Divestiture has meant the end of one-stop telecommunications shopping, he says, ''but it's still in people's minds that there's one phone company that does it all.''

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Heller takes issue with that view. She notes that MCI and other alternative long-distance carriers have been in business for several years now, and businesses have been able to buy telephone equipment from manufacturers other than AT&T since the landmark ''Carterfone'' decision of 1968. As a result, businesses have had time to build up expertise in telecommunications management. ''The Fortune 500 companies are pretty sophisticated users of telecommunications ,'' she says.

It has only been in the last few years, however, that professional corporate telecommunications departments have really gotten off the ground, says Christine L. King, an instructor at Northeastern University's State-of-the-Art Engineering program. Until very recently, she says, ''Telecommunications management consisted of having the corporate controller's secretary look over the monthly phone bills and say every now and again, 'Oh, my! Mr. Smith has certainly been making a lot of calls to California.' ''

Coopers & Lybrand, the accounting firm, has done a survey indicating that only some 3 percent of telecommunications professionals have actually had formal training in the field.

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But, says Ms. King, ''People have figured out that they need to get smart, and to their credit, they're doing it.'' She cites an upsurge in interest in telecommunications, not only by companies looking for in-service training for their employees but by young people in college seeking out career paths.

''What's crucial is that those who go in (to the telecommunications field) stay state of the art,'' says Mr. Peirce. Very well run companies include this already, he says. ''You need an analytical individual'' who can solve the business problems of the phone, someone who will see the larger issue behind what is apparently a small technical problem.

And telecommunications managers also need to know what to ask for from equipment vendors. This is not to say that they have to be electronics engineers , ''but they have to have the technical expertise to judge bids,'' Mr. Peirce says.

What has happened in many businesses, observers say, is that the telecommunications managers have come out of a general office-administration background: ''The guy you call to fix the phone is the same guy who repairs your chair or sends someone in to take care of a burnt-out light.'' Such people simply aren't part of a corporation's strategic planning, to say the least, and they aren't in a position to influence corporate policy on telecommunications - or anything else.

On the other hand, many telecommunications managers have come from a data-processing background, and despite the advent of desktop computers throughout the office, the computer people are seen as off in a technology ghetto somewhere, not part of top management.

What's needed, says J. Michael O'Hara, who runs the MCI School of Telecommunications Management, is for the people who run phone and data systems to grasp the bigger picture and ''to increase (their) visibility within a company - it's a matter of changing the phone bill from a black hole into a profit center.''

''But now telecommunications managers are becoming part of senior management, '' says Dr. Brown at Northeastern. ''There's been a dramatic change just over the last couple of years.'' There are half a dozen telecommunications managers across the country with annual salaries around $200,000, he says, and a hundred more at the $100,000 mark.

Dr. Brown compares the AT&T divestiture to the energy crisis of the 1970s and suggests both events will prove to have the effect of making people appreciate a resource once taken for granted, but now actively managed. ''Communication is like oil - the lifeblood of every aspect of a business.''

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