The Foundation Cliff

One of the issues heard time and time again from foundation licensee is that there is quite a lot of interest shown, including taking the exam. However, as soon as the exam is over, it all goes quiet, you can hear the crickets in the air. For the Foundation Licensee that has a friend that guided them into Amateur Radio, they might be given some guidance, but for the many others, they are simply on their own. This can have a negative effect, or at least limit the progress of a new foundation ham, and if it continues, you foundation ham a few years later doesn’t feel he got what he needed or wanted from the hobby and doesn’t renew, what we are describing as the “foundation cliff”. You are not going to keep every foundation ham that comes online, but need to provide that guiding hand to all the others.

With the introduction of the Foundation licence in October 2005, the ongoing structuring and refinement of STEM program’s in Australian schools (2007 onwards) along with the growth in interest in Single Board Computers and Microcontrollers, this has contributed to a renewed interest in Electronics and its related fields. Combined with this in the last few years as been an uptake in in solitary hobbies due to Covid-19, which has also contributed to the improved (or at least stabilised) Amateur Radio numbers in Australia. However, the Amateur Radio fraternity needs to make the changes to capture this renewed interest and start growing this number, especially with the ageing population, which is closely aligned with the Amateur radio demographic. This means that Amateur Radio clubs need to work on further strategies to grow this number, which should include :- 

  • Foundation Member Retention Strategies – Survey foundation members – what do they want from their club?
  • Further Education – Provide them direction and strategies for their next goal – Standard or Advanced Licence. Where can they do their exams?
  • Foundation Member only meetings (e.g. another night separate to the main meeting)
  • Encouraging members to experiment and understand – remember they are not all RF engineers.
  • Bring them into the fold – introduce them at meetings – Let the members know who they are.
  • Presentations – aim some presentations purely at Foundation members with a few knowledgeable members presenting. Explain what contesting is and how SOTA and WWFF work.
  • Technical Direction – Discuss equipment, what the issues are with Chinese radios, demonstrate the issues with Chinese radios and what Chinese radios are passable for a foundation member to get involved with. 

So what can Amateur Radio clubs do?

Amateur Radio clubs need to take a more active role, particularly in the newcomers development. The club needs to become the centre of focus for any new hams coming onboard. This needs to include :-

Foundation Member Retention Strategies

This doesn’t just apply to Amateur Radio clubs, but basically any organisation that has members or volunteers. Interest wanes after a period of time and whilst we can make some big assumptions, why not ask the foundation members themselves and get it right from the horses mouth.

What needs to be remembered, is that all the ideas don’t need to come from the Club Committee. The committees ultimate goal is to make sure the correct decisions are made and appropriate stewardship and direction of the Club. What needs to be remembered, is that the majority of your foundation members have been around, not necessarily in the Amateur Radio world, but in the real world where their ideas have been put in place and implemented. Ideas that might be worth listening to.

Once the surveys are back, take some real time to understand what has come out of the survey, and what actions can be taken, and what actions will be taken and feed this back to the Foundation members and also to the rest of the membership. Out of this you have just established or strengthened the connection with your foundation members. Now its time to grow it.


Training

As a minimum, training, even online training should be made available to the Foundation members for the Standard course (even at a nominal cost). typically, 30 to 40 people per year do the course through a club, so even if you ended up with a quarter wanting to move up to the standard, that is a manageable number.

However, you need that connection to those foundation members, promoting your Foundation members only nights, promoting presentations that would really suit the foundation member (e.g. Exploring the Microwave region for Moonbounce is not one for foundation members, but FT8 – what is it and how can I get started which would suit the foundation member on low power), actively ringing or at least emailing them personally every few months to see how they are going. Listen to what they are into, listen to see if they are ready to move to the next level.

Foundation Member only meetings

By now you might be thinking, why all this attention on foundation members. Put very simply, these members are going to be the lifeblood of the club, the members that will be the club in 10-20 years if you look after them and feed them (knowledge and support that is).

These meetings should not be onerous for the club, possibly 3-4 a year but make it something for the foundation member to look forward to. It could even be made virtual which may suit certain demonstrations or presentations (but come together when you can, but put the structure into the presentation, give some history and theory, instead of a 5 minute show of an FT8 carrier waterfall and a QSO. In effect the person doing the presentation becomes the Elmer for that group, someone that they could email to get answers to the questions.

These foundation meetings could be made on a different night to the main club meetings as to not impose on other members who are not interested in learning something they learnt 20 years ago and know it well.

Encouraging members to experiment and understand

One of the biggest issues is that as we mentioned, society has become more of throw away society. With the foundation licence, a lot more people have joined the ranks, but many have not come from the RF engineers ranks (they are still there, but many go straight to Standard or Advanced) or even worked with electronics.

So it is possible that they don’t know what happens when you put a diode in reverse, why you can’t put more than 1-2 watts though a plastic housed variable capacitor, why you need a earth strap for working with some components and not others. You can tell them until you are blue in the face, but unless they fully understand or in most cases experience it themselves (including visual/sensory queues of the Magic Smoke leaking out). Whilst it can be frustrating to see someone do something you said won’t work, making the mistake educates even better.

So it necessary to educate, even providing resources to back up your statements. Again that education comes across as an interest in the Foundation member and making him a valuable member, one that has been educated correctly and not just re-iterating the same thing over and over again.

Bring them into the fold – introduce them at meetings

Sounds simple, but a brief introduction of your new foundation members in front of the existing membership can break down the barriers. give each foundation member 2-3 mins to introduce themselves, covering areas like

  • Name
  • Full time occupation and Volunteer work they do
  • How they became interested in Amateur radio
  • What they want out of the hobby

Now the Foundation member feels that there is an interest in him. Likewise, just one or two existing members come up to them during meeting because something was said that piqued their interest, and connections are being made, and this is even more important when there is reasonable age gaps involved, so being able to talk on common grounds, removes those barriers.

Presentations – aim some presentations purely at Foundation members

This pretty well straight forward, but these presentations should be aimed at Foundation members, covering basics such as Dipole Construction, SWR, Coax types and loss, Flower Pot Antennas, Digital such as FT8 and WSPR. These are presentations that matter to the Foundation member now, in most cases that don’t cost a lot, they are critical to their success as a Foundation Ham operator.

There is no reason these cannot be a template based lesson / presentation that you do year on year, possibly having two years worth of these already laid out.

If after two years they are not ready to start learning for the Standard exam, they have enough to continue to self educate and/or attend the standard presentations and understand them better.

Presentations could include

  • A brief overview of radios to look at as a Foundation Licence holder
  • Coax type, understanding loss, feed line types
  • Antenna types and baluns
  • Dipole Construction – looking at a simple 15m Resonant Dipole and how to make it for other bands
  • VHF/UHF Transceivers and Repeater operation (bring your own HT)
  • Repeater use and what are Nets all about. How do I participate?
  • Building a Flowerpot antenna to reach the repeaters
  • Antenna Tuners – what are they – what do they tune?
  • HF Digital – how to get into FT8/WSPR
  • Contests – what are they – What is SOTA , WWFF, POTA, how do I participate?
  • EMI management – basic how to track, what are harmonics?
  • QSL Cards – A history, are mostly electronic, how does it now work?
  • WICEN – What is the structure, who runs it, what does WICEN have to do with Emergency Communications?

Technical Direction – Discuss equipment

This is always a contentious subject, everyone with their own bias, own thoughts, their own budgets, and their own agenda.

This subject requires everyone to put their thoughts/bias/agenda aside, putting forward a defined presentation that has had all the input into it way before the delivery to the Foundation members. It still doesn’t mean questions won’t cause derailments and stray comments, but on the whole the presentation has some direction.

The reason for this discussion/presentation is that Transceiver purchases are probably one of the most expensive purchases that a Foundation member will make, and no matter how much they know, the information from their club and its hams, is probably the best advice, particularly to keep costs down, Foundation members (some) will invariably purchase a second hand transceiver, and there is no one better than the experienced members of the club who can steer you in the right direction on why a Kenwood TS820 is a better choice than a TS520, which radio can be serviced easily, which radio will cause you issues throughout its life and cost you more than a new one.

They can also steer you clear of radios that do not meet the basic specs regarding harmonics and what ones do that meet your budget.

What does the WIA need to do?

Much of this article has been what the club needs to do, and at the grass roots level, the club needs to lead the way, however some of this falls on the Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA) as the peak industry body.

We are all aware of the weekly amateur news broadcast, and the Amateur Radio magazine for members, which are well noted and respected, however, it could be doing a lot more.

One of the first places that prospective hams go to find out about getting a licence is after they arrive at the WIA website. The website whilst adequate, is tired and old. This is the first impression of the hobby for most foundation prospects, and ideally it should be a source of information, at least pointing them in the right direction on various aspects.

They, like the clubs could be working in the licence holder retention space, and not necessarily just WIA membership. If this is not worked on, by natural attrition, less and less people will be listening to the WIA broadcast, less and less people will be reading the magazine and less and less Amateurs will be joining the WIA.

There is no reason why the WIA prepare surveys, particularly to the foundation licence holders of the last 5 years and ask some basic questions such as

  • How long have you had or did have a foundation licence?
  • What Licence do you hold now?
  • What were you looking for from your club?
  • Does you club offer any training for Standard Licence?
  • Would you have upgraded if you club offered training (even at a nominal cost)?
  • Have you been to your club more than 4 times a year?
  • Has your club made you feel welcome?

These are just a few examples

With the removal from the WIA of examination duties a few years ago, it is even more important that the WIA remains even more relevant to Amateur Radio operators going forward

What can the foundation licence holder do?

Well, you can sit back, do nothing, and you might get something out of the hobby for a few years before you start becoming disillusioned like others have.

Whilst Amateur Radio can be a solitary hobby, it is far more enjoyable practising, learning, and sharing ideas as a group.

It is also up to you to initiate some of these things. If your Club is not able to support you, take a look around for others. They don’t even need to be close by if they do a lot of their presentations online. However make all attempts to really get involved in your club by asking what tools and facilities they have. They might have

  • Discord/Slack Internet talk groups
  • Mailing list / Groups.io digest mail systems
  • Facebook page
  • Club Nets

You might find that some of these systems are not utilised heavily, hence you were not told about them when you join. Take a look, find out who is the “controller” and look to request the setup of a channel for foundation members, and put a message out to all foundation members that discord is available and what the intent is, e.g. you want to setup a weekly meeting/discussion group for foundation members to share ideas and what you are into.

Open some discussions with senior members of the club and discuss options to get yourself more involved, maybe even a job on the committee.

Whatever you do, especially if you feel that the club is not supporting you, just remember the club does to a lot of other work which includes

Maintenance, and in some cases replacement of the local Repeaters and Beacons

  • Portable repeaters for WICEN
  • Education and exams for Foundation
  • Exam facilities for other licences
  • Support of the local WICEN Branch
  • Management of the Website
  • WIA Rebroadcasting (including call backs)

So if you decide you want to join another club (which is your perogative), look to remain with your local club (unless they have horrendous fees), as you are probably using or going to use the VHF/UHF repeaters and a part of your dues go to the upkeep of these.

Finally one more thing you can do is look to see if your local area has a makers group or club. There are some great synergies between Makers with 3D printing, electronics and amateur radio. Quite often you will find that members of these clubs are also members of your local amateur radio club, quite often at the foundation level, and are probably more active than most others. These people can form the basis of a Foundation group helping each other, pushing each other to learn.

With everybody playing their part, the Clubs, the WIA and the Foundation licence holders, the future can only look up.

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