The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) has created and released a comprehensive asset – dubbed the Workforce Development Guidebook, to equip states, ISPs, and agencies for the anticipated broadband staffing shortage.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.45 billion Broadband Equity and Access Deployment (BEAD) program – part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act - has begun to allot funds for the deployment of broadband services to un- and under-served U.S. areas.
The growing concern, however, is that recipients are more focused on the costs of building and maintaining the new networks for the next five years than on the daunting workforce creation efforts needed for success.
Why the guidebook is needed
The FBA describes itself as a large trade association that represents the fiber ecosystem of service providers, manufacturers, industry experts, and deployment specialists dedicated to the advancement of fiber broadband deployment. The group has helped providers, communities, and policymakers make informed decisions about how, where, and why to build better fiber broadband networks since 2001.
The FBA’s Workforce Development Guidebook notes that, according to the government’s calculations, 150,000 telecom jobs will be created by BEAD, while research by the FBA estimates the industry will need over 205,000 new jobs in the next five years to construct, operate, and maintain these new networks in every state.
The FBA warns the sudden and historic influx of public funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and BEAD Program will spur an unprecedented amount of construction activity and create a nationwide demand for skilled labor far beyond what the current workforce can support.
"Workforce is the second priority; construction is first," explained FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton. "We can't wait to see at the end what's left for workforce development." Increased emphasis on staffing is crucial. "Failure to ensure the availability of high-skilled labor will result in workforce bottlenecks, which will ultimately lead to higher costs and project delays.”
Those issues can have an enterprise impact. Why? Secure high-speed connections can bolster and broaden the availability of business applications for areas such as telehealth, collaboration, and education that were bearable during Covid that can be more effective and immersive. Remote and home workers can join corporate workforces. Small businesses can rise.
Planning for shortages
Telecom workers are in demand in rural areas, with service providers and their contractors seeking help with the rollout, according to Jeff Heynen, Vice-President of Broadband Access and Home Networks for Dell'Oro Group, a global market research and consultancy. Employees of a small carrier told him they were attracted to the upstart fiber provider offering a better compensation package than Tier 1 operators.
“There is just so much demand in terms of new projects that the existing workforce can’t handle it,” Heynen explained. “Also, I believe there is more churn now among operators, with workers leaving companies for new fiber entrants who are promising better pay and benefits.”
In anticipation of labor shortages, the NTIA included workforce planning requirements in its Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), “forcing states to consider on the front end how to ensure enough high-skilled workers are available to deliver funded projects. The NTIA outlines key components of a workforce plan that states must consider and respond to in their Five-Year Action Plans, including training and workforce development activities, skilled workforce activities, labor and employment laws, and contracting requirements.
The guidebook emphasizes training and upskilling
While those components are instrumental to creating a prosperous workforce ecosystem, the FBA claims its Workforce Development Guidebook “primarily focuses on training and upskilling activities. It provides context on the telecommunications landscape, broadband workforce development, and practical guidance on how to craft and deploy an effective workforce development strategy.”
The FBA took on the workforce development challenge in the wake of the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, under which it quickly engaged with 23 states to roll out the Optical Telecom Installation Certification (OpTIC) program with their community college systems and fiber-optic broadband service providers. Today (a year later), the number of states sits at 38, according to Bolton.
"The challenge for us is the 18 to 25-year-olds," Bolton explained. That is in part because much of the current U.S. workforce is far older. "We need to get young people interested in telecom jobs and careers."
In the guidebook, the efforts of several states that have already addressed the workforce development challenges are discussed. Included are Ohio, Vermont, and Maine – each with varying paths to the same goal. “States haven’t waited on BEAD,” noted Bolton.
Beyond the 18-25 age group, states are also looking to attract military veterans, previously incarcerated individuals, and those with autism. The FBA has considered the value of self-paced learning versus full-classroom education approaches.
One challenge the FBA is considering is how to lure staff from their current jobs into telecom by looking to replace some of their earnings with a stipend to incentivize them to learn while working.
Another observation focuses on the variations of training for the broadband rollout effort. Some large carriers have daylong boot camps, while other programs offer 2,000-hour apprenticeships.
The FBA teamed with Cartesian, a research and strategic consulting firm, to create the guidebook.