The telecom industry is facing a workforce crunch as its networks transform: With increased reliance on software for network functions and management, new skillsets are in demand. With 5G deployments well underway and scaling, technicians who can properly and efficiently install fiber, power and radio equipment to telecommunications sites are in high demand across the country — and there simply aren’t enough of them to do all the work as fast as operators would like. In addition, efforts to bridge the digital divide through new funding for broadband can only come to fruition as fast as networks can be built. Meanwhile, broadband demand overall has only been intensified by the pandemic, even as carriers have had to find ways to reduce in-home visits and nudge customers toward self-installation and remote access to test and monitor their networks.
A working group of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee said last year there are around 29,000 broadband-related technicians employed in the U.S., and that number will need to increase by 20,000 in the next decade in order to accommodate broadcast repacking as well as expand universal broadband, public safety networks and 5G. Telecommunications crews “cannot keep pace with the [broadband]expansion without more skilled hands on deck,” the BDAC’s Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities Working Group concluded in a report published last fall.
That report relied on interviews with stakeholders across the industry to identify the challenges to expanding the telecom network workforce, as well as potential solutions to pursue. The seven challenges were:
1. A broadband brand “identity crisis”. Simply put, students and workers don’t know much if anything about the telecom industry and the careers it offers, how to get prepared for such jobs, or what various career trajectories in the industry looks like. “Most potential workers are not aware that there exists a broadband industry, nor do they know how to enter the relevant field in the industry,” the report said, adding, “If potential workers and students do not know what the career paths are, or how to enter the industry, there is no starting point from which to begin.”
2. A dearth of standardized and nationwide training programs. There is no uniform credentialing for specific job titles, there aren’t many broadband technician training programs and the ones that do exist are highly regional and produce only a small number of graduates each year. Current broadband technicians ideally have multiple skill sets that defy typical categorizations (for example, construction skills as well as familiarity with installing power and fiber, as well as RF knowledge) for recruiting and training purposes. In addition, the report said, a “general lack of industry standardization … makes it difficult [for institutions and training programs]to develop effective curricula for specialized training” that both allows employees to advance their careers and meets the needs of employers. Other training can be so specific to services or equipment vendors that employees don’t gain a broad set of skills. While the report identifies a number of successful training programs that exist, scale remains an issue.
3. Lack of awareness of, and a lack of, federal and state funding for training programs. Skilled workers are hard to find. When employers invest in training for unskilled workers, they often try to hold onto newly trained employees with service commitments, so that employee doesn’t immediately head to a competitor. But, the report said, there is “a significant lack of knowledge and unawareness by employers and training providers alike regarding historical grant vehicles and grant agencies that can assist them” and defray some of the costs of training new employees, hopefully making employers more open to taking on unskilled employees.
4. Lack of standardized job codes and categories, wages and universal credentialing. In order to retain employees, employers need insights into what constitutes competitive wages and benefits and good working conditions across the industry — otherwise they may very well have employees leave for better opportunities. The report noted as an example that for a “telecommunications technician” job opening posted by three different telecom companies, the pay varied by $17 per hour, from about $21 per hour to $38 per hour. Regionalization plays a role in the variance, but better data tracking and visibility across the industry might help with both employee and employer expectations.
5. The work is seasonal, demand fluctuates and multiple factors limit the pool of workers. Finding potential workers who are comfortable with working at heights on telecom towers is a challenge in itself. In addition, the report says, broadband workers have to be on-call and on the road frequently, and depending on the climate and season, the demand for workers can fluctuate significantly — so jobs may be very demanding, but not necessarily steady. “Many broadband industry workers or potential workers might view the job security issue differently if alternative industry career options, and upskilling and other training programs, were available during periods when the peak demand is over,” the report notes. Requirements for a commercial drivers license (CDL) can further limit the potential pool of workers, and the fact that CDLs can’t be obtained until people are 21 years old means that it’s also difficult for workers to jump straight into broadband deployment jobs from high school or junior college.
6. A dwindling skilled workforce because of retirements. This is a national trend facing multiple industries as the Baby Boomers age — but the report points out the seeming contradiction that while there are not enough younger workers to fill telecom needs, it’s also the case that broadband industry workers often get laid off before retirement age. During economic downturns or slowdowns in network deployment cycles, who is most likely to be laid off? The youngest and most inexperienced workers tend to be first, then those with less experience. Companies are left with their most experienced employees, but they have reduced the pipeline of internal candidates who will have enough experience to competently fill those older workers’ shoes when they retire.
7. The Covid-19 pandemic means a “new normal” that is still being figured out — for everyone, including the telecom workforce. The pandemic has driven a shift from very low unemployment, and the accompanying recruitment challenges, to much higher unemployment and a different set of circumstances under which employers and employees are working. This affected the BDAC working group’s focus as well, in a way that tracks with the overall employment environment. “At the beginning of 2020, the Working Group focused on ways to attract fully employed individuals away from their current fields. Then, in April, the focus shifted to how to effectively recruit unemployed individuals into the field and train them quickly and effectively,” the report says. “The COVID-19 environment transformed the challenge from finding enough candidates into creating pathways to industry careers by focusing on education and training of workers including the unemployed.” But the pandemic is also creating new challenges for training and educating new telecom workers, among them budget cuts and programming reductions at academic institutions.
The BDAC workforce report didn’t just identify challenges, it offered up potential solutions. Read the full report here.
For more discussion of evolving telecom workforce needs, keep an eye out an RCR Wireless News special report coming later this week.
The post Seven challenges to expanding the broadband workforce appeared first on RCR Wireless News.