The wireless infrastructure industry found lots to cheer about in a bill establishing a Telecommunications Workforce Development Advisory Council at the FCC, which was introduced last week. The bill, authored by U.S. Representatives Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Yvette Clarke (D-NY), would facilitate the participation in industry specific workforce development programs and identify ways to improve workforce development in the communications industry.
The advisory council would be made up of a member of the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; a State agency; a local agency a Tribal agency, the communications industry and a minority institution.
Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, commended Reps. Walberg and Clarke for introducing the bill and for including a representative from TIRAP to serve on the newly formed Advisory Council.
“This measure will provide the necessary focus to help train a 5G-ready workforce, including the need for apprenticeships in telecommunications, which is imperative for the U.S. to win the global 5G race,” Adelstein said. “The wireless infrastructure industry will continue leading efforts to develop a skilled, professional workforce capable of deploying next-generation wireless networks. The road to 5G cannot be slowed by the lack of a trained workforce. We deeply appreciate the leadership of Reps. Walberg and Clarke on creating the jobs of the future for growing the wireless workforce.”
National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) Legislative & Regulatory Affairs Director Jim Goldwater also voiced his support for the Tower Infrastructure Deployment Act.
“NATE views this bipartisan legislation as another important vehicle to highlight the workforce needs of our diverse industry as we begin to ramp up for the protracted 5G deployment cycle,” Goldwater said. “The Association stands ready to collaborate with members of Congress and the FCC to participate in the workforce development specific initiatives that emerge upon the passage of this bill.”
Through his work on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Walberg has been focused on bringing next-generation connectivity to rural communities, according to Adelstein. Building on the committee’s success last Congress to help streamline infrastructure regulations and expand access to critical spectrum, this bill fills in another part of the equation: preparing a skilled workforce to bring these technologies to reality, he added.
Rep. Walberg, said, “As the telecom industry deploys next generation technologies, there are tens of thousands of good-paying, highly-skilled jobs but nobody to fill them. Developing a skilled workforce needs to be a top priority. By streamlining workforce development programs and promoting industry collaboration, we can free up resources for greater broadband deployment instead of recreating the same curriculum across the country.”
About H.R. 3255, the TOWER Infrastructure Deployment Act of 2019
In particular, The ‘‘Telecommunications Opportunities for Workers Engaging in Real Infrastructure Deployment Act of 2019’’ or the ‘‘TOWER Infrastructure Deployment Act’’ would establish a council that would advise the commission on the needs of the workforce in the communications industry to promote the deployment of communications facility installations, ways to encourage participation in industry-led workforce development programs, and ways to improve workforce development in the communications industry.
The advisory council would examine the needs of the telecommunications industry as it transitions to new technologies like 5G, next-generation broadband, and next-generation television. In turn, the council would develop recommendations to improve and streamline workforce development in the telecommunications industry, especially for underrepresented communities. Additionally, the council would also report information about the needs of the telecommunications industry and recommendations to improve participation in workforce development programs.
“Women and people of color are underrepresented in the telecom industry, which is why I am committed to drafting and supporting legislation that addresses this unacceptable reality. As a black woman, I know how capable women and people of color are which compelled me to lead a bipartisan effort to address the telecom industry’s workforce diversity shortage. I am excited to witness my fellow women and people of color who will act as trailblazers in bringing 5G to America,” said Rep. Clarke.
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.
“TIRAP-participating employers are hiring in seven of the top ten Spanish-speaking states ,” said WIA President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein. “Reducing language barriers in the telecommunications industry is a no-brainer. Offering training materials in an apprentice’s native language will result in training efficiency, meaningful careers, and a more diverse workforce ready to build and maintain next-generation 5G infrastructure.”
“It is crucial to provide this resource to a diverse workforce so that each individual is able to clearly understand the program’s policies and procedures and can successfully progress from apprentice to fully-trained technician,” said TIRAP Chairperson David Sams. “Providing training materials in more than one language offers opportunity to a wider audience of individuals looking to join or remain gainfully employed in the workforce, and most importantly, these materials will have a positive impact on safety in the wireless industry.”
The Telecommunications Tower Technician Mentoring and Education Guide is also available in English.
On Wednesday, August 22 at 10:00 a.m. CDT, Kevin Kennedy, President and CEO of Warriors4Wireless (W4W), will conduct a live NATE webinar entitled How W4W and the Wireless Industry Can Team Up to Help Veterans.
This session with Kevin Kennedy will provide an overview of how:
Over 1,200 veterans successfully transitioned into wireless industry careers since 2014.
Over 50 industry hiring partners obtain contact information for interested and skilled veterans free of charge.
In 2018, 100% of climbing veterans trained received job offers within 35 days.
The Veteran’s GI Bill investment into tower technician training means hiring superb entry level technicians.
To register, please go to:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.
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