On the heels of AT&T reporting severe optical fiber shortages last week, and the ongoing shortages of semiconductor chips and other electronic components that bedevil businesses, most telecommunications associations continue to identify the skilled labor shortage as the single biggest challenge facing their members.
“I think one of the biggest things facing members is finding workers with the skills required to install fiber broadband networks,” said Debbie Kish, vice president of research and marketing at the Fiber Broadband Association. “Service providers deploying fiber are having a difficult time building out fiber networks fast enough because of the lack of workforce.”
Kish added, “With the new government infrastructure bill, the time is now to get people to a place where they can hit the ground running because fiber installations will explode and we want to make sure we have the workforce in place to meet the demand.”
Matt Mandel, vice president of government and public affairs for the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), said, “Certainly, the skilled worker shortage is one of the most pressing challenges our members face. We hear from them all time on this issue. It’s one of the reasons WIA is the national sponsor of TIRAP and for the WIA’s creation of the Telecommunications Education Center. Along with workforce, ensuring reasonable siting policies at all levels of government that promote colocation and responsible wireless infrastructure deployment is always a top issue.
“We have a diverse membership, including carriers, tower companies, professional service firms, small cell providers and OEMs,” Mandel said. “As such, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific issue. However, workforce development is certainly a big issue for many of our members, along with siting policy. Our members build and manage the wireless infrastructure that enable mobile communications, so a large and properly trained workforce is paramount. And similarly, reasonable siting policy that encourages colocation and responsible wireless infrastructure deployment is also crucial to meet the demand of wireless broadband.”
Meanwhile, when asked to identify the single largest issue for its members, a Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said, “Meaningful access to spectrum — either through unlicensed, shared/lightly-licensed, or licensed spectrum in license areas/blocks that are tailored to small innovators.” But then the spokesperson added, “The labor shortage is huge — finding, attracting and keeping good labor has always been difficult, especially for small companies operating in rural markets. The current labor crunch has only exacerbated that. Wireless internet service providers are finding ways to get around it — through comprehensive benefits packages, signing bonuses, higher pay, training, apprenticeship programs, etc., but it will remain an ongoing challenge even after the current crunch subsides. Though Congress’ billions for new broadband deployment will bring new labor into the market, until that new supply occurs, there will be labor issues in the short term.”
In January, a group of telecom industry trade associations — including WISPA, WIA, NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), CTIA, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), INCOMPAS, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, and the Power & Communication Contractors Association — joined together to compose to a letter to President Joe Biden.
“The U.S. currently faces a shortfall of skilled workers needed to deploy broadband across the country, to win the race to 5G, and to ensure robust fiber, mobile and fixed wireless networks,” the letter reads. “Needed investments in broadband infrastructure will increase demand on a labor force already in short supply. To improve the efficiency of federal funding, a corresponding initiative is needed to develop a workforce properly trained with the skills to deploy next generation wired and wireless networks.”
The letter also revealed that the U.S. telecommunications industry employs a total of 672,000 workers, with average annual wages of $77,500, and they expect the rollout of 5G and other technologies to create 850,000 more “new direct broadband and 5G jobs through 2025.” The letter asked Congress for legislation designed to encourage the development of educational programs to train new networking technicians, including specifically apprenticeship projects.
In February, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators renewed an effort to pass a bill focused on coordinating federal efforts on telecom workforce development, including apprenticeships and emphasis on the needs of rural areas. A similar bill was introduced around this time last year, but the effort may get a different reception with the change in the balance of power in the Senate and the White House. The Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act was introduced by Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).
In his own House testimony about the bill, Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of WIA, responded, “As wireless technology evolves, the workforce needs to evolve with it. The skills of yesterday no longer suffice for the demands of today and tomorrow’s wireless jobs.” WIA, which primarily represents the nation’s cell tower operators, has been working for years to develop training programs for new tower climbers and other technicians.
Todd Schlekeway, NATE president and CEO, responded to the Thune Amendment in saying, “Workforce development remains a top priority for the Association’s member companies and it is great to see this bi-partisan group of U.S. senators come out of the gate strong in the 117th Congress through the introduction of this legislation. NATE believes that the provisions outlined in the Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act can serve as a springboard to fostering greater collaboration between the federal government, state workforce boards, higher education and industry to accomplish the ultimate goal of developing a future pipeline of skilled technicians that the country sorely needs to meet its ambitious broadband and 5G deployment objectives,”
FBA’s Debbie Kish said her association was developed developing a certification program to address the skilled-worker shortage. “We are developing content for a Fiber Optic Technician Certification course, a program that will be offered at various vocational schools and community colleges around the country and through veteran programs,” she said. “We are creating this course to fill a ‘skills gaps’ to help accelerate fiber deployments across the nation. By the completion of the course the technicians will be able to install, test, and troubleshoot components to completed systems, including at subscriber’s FTTH [fiber to the home] locations.”
Kish also said she believes that there is also the opportunity for an apprenticeship program and our course is approved and registered with the Department of Labor. “What is really good about this program is that it isn’t about just creating jobs, but building careers for people in all stages of life,” she said. “We want to reach high school students as early as the 9th grade, young people who are considering technical or vocational college paths, and veterans. We really want to be part of the solution in workforce development, filling a need for service providers by delivering skilled people to bring fiber to every American.”
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.