The biggest challenge facing the tower industry today is having enough workers to keep up with the work involved with 4G, and now 5G, deployments. That is what Rick Suarez, group president of MasTec Network Solutions, said at the Connectivity Expo in Orlando last month.
“We have 680 tower crews in the field daily, and I could probably use 900 crews,” Suarez said. “That’s how much backlog is out there that is causing everyone to feel pressure.”
He spoke on the panel titled, “Evolution of Technology – Next Generation Technology and Its Impact on your Business Tomorrow and Beyond,” which also featured panelist Charles Kriete, senior vice president of commercial business at Tessco Technologies, and Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association as the moderator.
The health of the wireless infrastructure industry and a strong economy have a challenging side too, according Suarez. “I met with an official with the U.S. Department of Labor looking to find additional sources of labor and his comeback was, ‘The nation is at 3 percent unemployment, so don’t come here looking for resources,’” he said.
Adelstein asked where the labor squeeze is being felt the most and Suarez replied, “There is more momentum [in small cells] than there was before, but it is nowhere near what we face on the tower side of the industry. T-Mobile is going all out in the 600 MHz band. Really, all the carriers are busy. Plus, the regional carriers and wireless internet service providers and engaging in wireless buildouts.”
With short-term demands for additional capacity and coverage continuing unabated, carriers additions to LTE infrastructure have not slowed down, according to Suarez. “But now with the evolution of 5G radios, an uptick in work has been triggered for all of us to go back to the same LTE sites to deploy 5G radios, creating an incremental lift in the volume of work in the industry, which the tower crew workforce was not staffed for,” he said.
Nontraditional Staffing Approaches
With the strong economy providing other options for many of the high school, college and even tech school graduates, MasTec is taking nontraditional approaches to obtain workers, using visas to bring people from other countries.
“We are struggling to find people in America who want to do this work, so we have branched out into Canada, Mexico and U.S. Territories where people are hungrier and looking for opportunities. We teach them a skill and get them a good job,” Suarez said in a separate interview with AGL eDigest. “We need more immigrants in this country. The work is there but the resources are not.”
Suarez, an immigrant to the United States, said that MasTec is comfortable using immigrant labor. The CEO of MasTec, Jose Mas, is himself the son of an immigrant.
“One of the reasons I like MasTec is the fact that, even though we are in the same class with Bechtel, Black & Veatch and General Dynamics, our work force is 85 percent blue collar,” Suarez said. “When you look at our workforce, many of them are immigrants. In many ways, it is comfortable for us because of our shared heritage and history.”
MasTec has a business unit and training facility in Mexico, and it is using the visa program to bring its Mexican employees in the United States to work.
“We are finding a lot of value in this program, because these techs are less likely to be poached by another company, because of their work visas,” Suarez said.
Similarly, MasTec has a program in place in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, where it trains technicians and brings them to the mainland to work. It now has 40 Puerto Rican crews in place.
“Where we are seeing the most growth is in the Russian crews,” Suarez said. “They are finding ways to bring in people from Eastern Europe. They leverage our capital support and the commitment to provide work to grow their crews.”
The Need for Additional Training
MasTec has hired and trained more than 700 field technicians since September 2018, almost doubling its workforce since the 5G bubble began. Hiring new people brings on the need for training.
“Much of our challenge today is the time and money spent on training,” Suarez said. “Whether we bringing someone new into the industry or promoting existing technicians, we are being thoughtful to make sure the employee demonstrates the competencies of the job effectively, rather than the old model, which was a recommendation from the foreman that the top hand was ready to become a foreman.”
MasTec does a lot of its own training. It has set up three regional centers, spaced out geographically, providing employees with Tech 1, Tech 2 and Tech 3 training, bringing all of the incremental requirements from each classification skill into the training.
Warriers4Wireless also helps to train and supply MasTec with Tech 1 new-entry technicians. Suarez is on the board of directors of Warriors4Wireless, which his company helps to fund.
“We work with a lot of other groups, too, when you’re talking about growing as much as we are,” he said. “No one angle gets you the yield and value that you need from the resources that we hiring.”
Unfortunately, adding staff and training them may reduce productivity in the short term. Complex tower work may now take longer to complete. Even when new hires can be made and trained, it still takes time – three to five years – for a technician to become a foreman.
“This is a very skilled workforce and a very challenging work environment,” Suarez said. “You need a very competent foreman and a competent top hand to make up the root of the team to be able to do these builds.”
A foreman may make $4 to $5 more per hour, but there is no guarantee they will stay with the company.
“Foremen are being lured away by more money,” Suarez said. “As a result, stable productive crews become unstable. Techs are jumping into foremen positions before they are ready. That creates a real demand for resources, pressuring us to do more creative things to get new people into the workforce.”
In one program, MasTec is working to encourage loyalty among its subcontractors. Early last year, it began a preferred vendor program in which it rewards subcontractors, providing them with new trucks, trailers and other equipment, which they then buy back over time at no interest.