As the fiber industry grows, so does the need for skilled workers to build the networks.
In the past decade, public and private entities have poured billions into connectivity. Millions in the U.S. remain without reliable, high-speed internet—something the pandemic has greatly exacerbated. And as new technologies emerge that rely on fiber, a new problem is being exposed: there aren’t enough skilled workers to construct or install the networks at the pace in which they’re needing to be built.
At a recent Fiber for Breakfast live video series, industry experts discussed these workforce issues, and offered insights into possible solutions.
“Every contractor I’ve spoken to across the country has one shortage—and that is a problem with workforce,” said Steve Sellenriek, president of Sellenriek Construction. “We have enough capital to buy new equipment, we have enough work to do, our clients are plenty busy. The one thing we don’t have is the people to do the work.”
Sellenriek, who sits on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, sized up the workforce shortage this way: for every $1 billion spent on fiber deployments, requires 5,000 additional construction jobs alone. To put that into perspective, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction will pay out $20.4 billion over a 10-year period. That’s a lot of needed construction jobs.
The biggest issue is getting a pipeline of people into fiber construction. To combat that, many in the industry are going straight to the source. Brad Baumann, vice president of wireless solutions for Gabe’s Construction, said companies are developing programs at technical schools and community colleges to get people interested in fiber construction. Specifically, they’re offering apprenticeships that get young people out into the field fairly quickly and offer a range of skillsets.
“What we’re finding is there isn’t broad knowledge that there’s a career in building this infrastructure,” Baumann said. “We’re working with schools at even the high school level to show there’s a career path.”
Other companies are tapping into groups like veterans and second-career seekers to train for these jobs. Kelley Dunne, CEO of Novation Enterprises, works with veterans coming out of the service into job training, specifically in the telecom industry. Much like the apprenticeship programs at colleges, veteran training programs include hands-on training and certification and take about 18 to 24 months to fully complete. The “earn-as-you-learn” model is especially helpful for those combat veterans who are trying to provide for their families after returning home.
“It’s so rewarding to see the lightbulbs go off when they say, ‘I don’t have a job, I have a career,’” Dunne said. “These are great career-building jobs that can be life changers for their families.”
The shortage is something that’s caught the attention of legislators, too. Flynn Rico-Johnson, legislative director for Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA), said she and several others are pushing for a 5G Workforce Plan which includes the needed fiber workforce and that builds on steps already taken by the Department of Labor. This program would partner further with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor in creating the needed curriculum and outreach surrounding 5G and fiber deployment, as well as authorize $75 million over five years to expand apprenticeship and employment opportunities.
“We’re hoping with the 5G Workforce Plan, it will really be a meaningful moment in how we address this going forward,” Rico-Johnson said. “5G is small cells, but it’s not going to run if we don’t have a fiber workforce to install the backbone nationally. We think it’s integral and it has to happen.”
For those who do enter the workforce, all the panelists agreed there’s a lot of opportunity. While people are needed to build the networks, there’s ample opportunity for career growth. Sellenriek said he’s seen countless times where someone who started out working in the field works their way up to supervisor and field leadership positions in and out of the back office.
What’s most important, though, is getting people in the door in the first place. As networks continue to grow, organizations including FBA, private companies and those on Capitol Hill, will need to work together to make it happen.
“We need to focus on helping people get into this industry,” Baumann said.
Join us for our next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Nov. 4 at 10 am ET. The topic: The Connecting Consumers Series: TWN Communications and Mohave Electric Coop – Meeting the Broadband Needs of Members