Several speakers addressed the tower labor shortages and provided solutions in sessions held at the South Wireless Summit, last week in Nashville, Tennessee.
Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director, said that he hears from his organization’s tower services contractor members on a weekly basis about problems they are having in hiring trained personnel. He said lack of sufficient numbers of employees could slow the rollout of 5G wireless communications technology.
“The workforce development roadblock is real,” Schlekeway said. “We need more workers. We have members turn work down because they don’t have the workforce to do it. If you don’t have enough workers, it is hard to meet all of the ambitious deployment goals.”
Although other construction trades have worker shortages, Schlekeway said, the problem is exacerbated for companies whose employees work at height on macro sites or in rights of way and extensive travel is required.
Ron Bizick, CEO of Tarpon Towers, predicted that the limited supply of people will affect future buildouts. “You may be meeting demand today, but if you have three active carriers deploying 5G at the same time, I don’t think we have the resources,” he said.
Jay Brown, CEO of Crown Castle International, said labor shortages will get worse in the future, and he recounted a conversation with a Federal Reserve banker who noted that the shortage will span across all industries.
“In the next 15 years, our aging, non-immigrant workforce will decline by almost 5 percent per year,” Brown said. “GDP [gross domestic product] is the labor force times efficiency of production. If GDP is going to stay at zero, efficiency must go up 6 percent per annum (ignoring the immigrant workforce).”
To deal with the labor problem, the tower industry must increase efficiency and lower costs, according to Brown, who has been advising his staff to work faster and smarter.
“Ultimately, we are a bank for the carriers, and providing infrastructure at the lowest cost possible is the only way we are going to be successful,” he said. “This will help solve the labor shortage and will be critical as there is a significant deployment of small cells coming.”
Industry Providing Answers to Training, Educational Needs
NATE and others in the industry are collectively working on providing education and training to meeting the increasing demand for a trained workforce.
Schlekeway talked about the Communications Jobs Training Act, which was reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week, sponsored by Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) and Rep. Mark Wayne Mullin (R-OK), which would provide $20 million a year for three years to develop curriculum-based programs for community colleges and vocational technical schools to train the workers in macrocell and small cell work. The bill was endorsed by NATE.
Schlekeway said that training should be embedded in educational pathways. “The problem is when young people go to those schools, they don’t even know that wireless infrastructure is a potential career path, because the school doesn’t have a program,” he said. “We hope this is the beginning of a regional network of certificate-based programs for our industry.”
On May 14 and 15, NATE members are flying in to meet with their legislators to promote the passage of the Communications Jobs Training Act. As well as lobbying for federal support of jobs training, NATE has 30 members that provide private training, including Warrriors4Wireless and Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). Additionally, the association is providing free rigging training through an OSHA grant.
“TIRAP is going to be a good pathway once it is established in the marketplace,” Schlekeway said. “The most common pathway is internal training programs, and, today, training pathway options have never been better.”
WIA Takes on Telecom Training
TIRAP, the result of a joint venture of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) and others, develops DoL-credentialed apprenticeship programs for the training and career development of the telecom workforce.
A WIA official, Kimberly Curley, whose responsibility extends to workforce development, said that WIA is identifying key initiatives. “The most important initiative is education and training,” she said. “Our mission, through TIRAP, is to promote safety, enhance quality and enable education for workers.”
In support of worker education, WIA has also created the Telecommunications Education Center, an internet portal where users can access technical and customized training and certification, consultative services and apprenticeship programs provided by the association’s members, partners, subject matter experts and academic institutions.
“The courses that we have created were designed to ensure education across every job type,” Curley said. ”We have prerequisite and fundamental courses, which provide basic education training and a foundation of knowledge. It is devoted to improving education, training, safety – same as TIRAP – but this is an actual training program.”
Warriors4Wireless on a Mission to Get Vets Employed in Wireless
Kevin Kennedy, Warriers4Wireless (W4W) president, CEO and coach, spoke about how the W4W program targets veterans as they leave the service and are in need of employment. The organization was founded by American Tower, Crown Castle, MasTec Network Solutions, Shenandoah Tower Services, Site Link and others to bridge the gap between the need for trained wireless technicians and pool of labor coming from the armed services. The organization reached out to 68,000 veterans in 2018.
About 90 percent of the enlisted people W4W works with are first-time enlisted members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many veterans come out of the military without the means to make a smooth transition to civilian life and need some coaching on their next career. But, having learned discipline, teamwork and the ability to follow orders in the military, they have become perfect candidates to work in the tower industry, Kennedy said.
“They are willing to put their VA education benefits on the line to take a tower technician or fiber-optic course and show up on your doorstep with a certification,” Kennedy said. “Who doesn’t want that? Everybody would like that.”
W4W has 170 hiring partners across the country, which the organization provides with resumes free of charge. The organization places about 50 people for jobs a month and has placed 1,400 to date. It placed 300 last year, which represented 100 percent of the people it trained. Kennedy said he expects that number to double this year.
“Because the market is heating up, we are going to get 600 placements this year,” Kennedy said. “That’s 600 veterans who have served our country faithfully and need a job. And they would love to work for you.”