Amidst a once-in-a-generation pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, tens of millions of Americans are currently out of work and unsure of where their next paycheck will come from. It’s a scary time for these folks and many are unsure where to even begin a job search. However, there is a bright spot in the fiber industry: there is a high demand for the deployment of fiber broadband networks and, as a result, there are massive workforce opportunities in the industry.
The need for high-speed, futureproof fiber broadband is clear. Between the Internet of Things, the popularity of streaming and video conferencing, and the increasingly remote nature of work and school, slower networks will no longer suffice. And that’s not to mention the continued investment to build out fiber as THE needed backbone for our 5G networks. We have found that we are facing a shortage of qualified candidates to do this essential work. In fact, one of the Fiber Broadband Association’s member companies reported that they are 100 crews short — that’s crews, not just employees — to support the amount of work they have. Other members confirm they are having to turn away work because they just don’t have the workforce.
Why is there such a drastic workforce shortage? Not only are there simply not enough of the right training programs that equip workers with the right skills to deploy fiber or 5G networks, but we also need more apprenticeships, programs in schools, and training for second-career workers. It’s more than just tower climbers that are needed to build out the networks of the future — we need to invest in high-level training programs to teach everything from construction skills, planning and design to engineering and advanced technical skills to fill the fiber workforce.
In an effort to remedy this, members of the Fiber Broadband Association are partnering with community colleges and trade schools to provide more pointed industry training. For instance, thanks to a $2 million state grant, State Technical College of Missouri launched a Utility System Technician associate’s degree. Likewise, Wilson Community College in North Carolina offers a 10-week course and a 5-day boot camp on fiber deployment. Programs like these provide curricula related to creating network infrastructure, operating heavy machinery, installing equipment, and more.
In addition to these partnerships and educational programs, we would love to see even greater federal funding dedicated to filling this skills gap and getting millions of Americans back to work. Today, the Department of Labor (DOL) has two programs in place to do this: the Workforce Opportunities for Rural Communities (WORC) and the Apprenticeship Readiness grant programs, both geared toward supporting educational institutions via grants. Combined, these programs offer $130 million in grants.
But given the immense opportunity for high-quality jobs in this industry, Congress should explore other opportunities to fund this type of vital training. The passage of the TOWER Infrastructure Deployment Actor a similar bill would do a great deal to provide the tools needed to support the fiber industry and create jobs for Americans.
At the Fiber Broadband Association, we also offer workforce resources for our members, including the Fiber Job Zone. This job site connects talent with available opportunities and we encourage our members and candidates alike to visit the site.
With a pandemic continuing to impact every corner of the nation, this is an incredibly uncertain time for everyone and especially for those millions of Americans who are out of work. If we invest in the right resources — both federally and at a local level — there is a terrific opportunity within the fiber and 5G industry to get Americans working again while also connecting more people to high-speed broadband.