Last week, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee heard about advancements in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, automated factories and other gee-whiz inventions coming in the future. This week, the committee focused on the communications infrastructure and workforce that are needed to make those innovations possible.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, convened a hearing titled, “The 5G Workforce and Obstacles to Broadband Deployment,” to examine the skills and training needed by the telecommunications workforce to deploy 5G networks, as well as ongoing efforts within the public and private sectors to address the 5G labor shortage.
“This committee is keenly interested in learning what additional measures federal, state and local governments can take to train workers and ensure they have the specialized skills to meet 5G deployment demand,” Wicker said in his opening statement.
Jimmy Miller, president and CEO of MillerCo, and chairman of National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), gave testimony on the projected shortage of 20,000 technicians that may occur in the next 10 years, its effect on the 5G wireless infrastructure and broadband deployment, NATE’s efforts to fill the gap and possible legislative remedies.
“These workforce challenges confronting the industry serve to increase the pressure on small contractor companies like mine to hire individuals who we will mold into skilled tower technicians,” Miller said in his prepared testimony. “If we are to win the hyper-competitive global race to build and deploy 5G … we must ensure that we have enough trained workers. We simply cannot meet these national goals without doing so.”
Miller said there are legislative remedies to the worker shortage, such as S. 2363, the “Tower Infrastructure Deployment Act,” which the Commerce Committee should support.
“This legislation would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to establish a Telecommunications Workforce Development Advisory Council within the FCC to facilitate participation in industry-specific workforce development programs and identify ways to improve workforce development in the communications industry,” Miller said.
Miller also detailed the activities of NATE in attracting and retaining workforce, as well as the training and certification of those workers through workforce development and training initiatives.
“A major component of workforce development is the abundance of training available in the industry to develop and grow a skilled workforce,” Miller said. “NATE facilitates high-quality training by providing best practices guidelines, standards and subject-matter expertise to ensure that minimum benchmarks are established in training curriculum.”
Miller called on the Department of Labor to address 5G workforce challenges, increasing the number of apprenticeship opportunities for companies and organizations in the telecommunications sector. He said the apprenticeship-based training offered through Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP) represents another opportunity to grow the workforce, which is “tailor-made” for companies like his.
“It is my hope that some of these issues can be appropriately addressed and the process significantly streamlined to allow more workers to be trained in accordance with TIRAP training pathways and for employers to receive funding for some of the training,” Miller said.
As part of its support for apprenticeships, Miller said NATE encourages the Commerce Committee to support S. 951, the “Apprentice Hubs Across America Act of 2019,” which promotes registered apprenticeships within in-demand industry sectors, like the tower services industry.
Miller also encouraged the Commerce Committee to introduced companion legislation in the Senate to H.R. 1848, the “Communications Jobs Training Act,” which would authorize $60 million to develop classroom and field-based curriculum and certificate programs at community colleges, vocational institutes and military organizations to attract and train workers to build, deploy and maintain wireless infrastructure.
“This is NATE’s top legislative priority for the 116th Congress, and we ask that members of the committee embrace this important bill in the Senate,” he said. “While this and other measures that deal with workforce development only represent modest steps that are frankly insufficient to enable our industry to keep pace with the growing demand for enhanced communications services, they are collectively a significant step in the right direction.”
Also speaking at the hearing were Brendan Carr, FCC commissioner; Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association; Harold Feld, senior VP, Public Knowledge; and Lisa Youngers, president and CEO, Fiber Broadband Association