The 5G Workforce Needs a Big Boost

The success of the next wireless evolution depends on finding qualified workers

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer January 28, 2020
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cell tower worker

​The full-scale deployment of 5G wireless communications technology over the next several years promises to significantly grow the U.S. economy and transform the workplace, but first workers have to be trained to build and maintain the needed infrastructure.

"The United States faces a 5G labor shortage," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., addressing a congressional hearing recently. "It is projected that 20,000 more tower climbers are needed to accelerate the deployment of 5G in order to win the race and secure the advantage in the United States. Additional labor will also be needed to lay fiber to support wireless connections, install radios and deploy other essential equipment."   

How 5G Will Reshape Work

Wicker explained that the work to install 5G networks will be very different from the previous iteration of wireless technology, known for its cell towers providing coverage for miles around. In addition to reconfiguring the large towers, 5G networks will require the installation of small radio equipment and antennas on nearly every streetlamp and traffic light, necessitating a substantial increase in labor. Maintenance of the equipment will add to the workforce demand.

The shortage of properly trained workers is the most significant challenge the industry faces, said Jimmy Miller, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE).  

"The 5G rollout, coupled with targeted initiatives to continue to expand broadband and related infrastructure to rural and underserved areas of the United States, is creating a major industry challenge across the country [of] … attracting, recruiting and retaining a skilled, productive and safe telecom workforce," Miller said.

Some of the impediments to growing this workforce are:

  • Lack of awareness of the telecom industry's career opportunities.
  • Lack of industry programs at community and technical colleges.
  • Competition from other industry sectors and construction trades.
  • Technicians who are unwilling to work at heights or travel extensively.
  • A graying workforce approaching retirement.

 "Today's technicians need to expand and diversify their skillsets to include training in areas such as small cell antenna installation, 5G equipment specifications, 5G construction best practices, 5G infrastructure design, distributed antenna systems and fiber work," he said. 5G will require many additional occupations beyond tower techs, including RF engineers, site managers, antennae installers and others.

The panel of witnesses agreed that addressing the industry's challenge to attract, recruit and retain a productive workforce will require collaboration between employers, schools, workforce development organizations and all levels of government. The hearing included discussions of private-sector initiatives to provide on-the-job training, partnerships with local educational institutions to create a pipeline for skilled labor and other government measures to meet 5G labor demand.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Solutions

The Department of Labor (DOL) is already engaged with telecommunications employers to upskill the current telecom workforce, while its registered apprenticeship program for the industry is meant to attract and train new workers.

"The wireless industry has been working with DOL on [the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program] for tower techs, and already supports 2,085 apprenticeships with 30 different employers," said Brendan Carr, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "Apprenticeship programs like this hold great promise because they allow those with obligations or families to support a chance to earn while they learn."

Carr sees community colleges and technical schools being a pipeline for 5G jobs. He pointed to a program developed by Aiken Technical College in Graniteville, S.C., as a model.

"In 12 weeks, the program can take someone with virtually no training, teach them the mix of classroom and physical skills necessary to build and install new cell sites, and enable them to land a good-paying job in the tower industry," he said. All the graduates of the program have received job offers, he added.

He said that the FCC and NATE have been partnering with community colleges around the country to set up similar certification programs.

Carr also pointed out that some companies are expanding their in-house training opportunities. Ericsson opened a 26,000 square foot training facility in Lewisville, Texas, in 2019 to train tower climbers. The company reported that 847 trainees completed the program last year.

"But training workers in-house can be expensive, particularly for many of the smaller tower companies that are building out 5G networks," Carr said. "I think we should continue to look for ways to support additional training opportunities while also highlighting the good work that businesses are doing through their in-house programs."

One change Carr would like to see is the federal government providing the same financial support for technical workforce students as it does for those on the general education track. "There is bipartisan work ongoing in Congress—the JOBS Act of 2019 being one example—that aims to expand Pell grant eligibility to cover shorter-term certificate programs," he said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said that a misunderstanding of technical education is a root cause of the labor shortage. "We need to get to our children in high schools and let them know that there is no first- or second-class way to recognize their human potential," he said. "We need to change the attitude that we have been beating into our children's heads that you have to get a four-year degree or you're some kind of second-class citizen."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., summed up the issue from the standpoint of funding: "The federal government invests a substantial amount of money into four-year degree programs even though those graduates represent about 35 percent of the U.S. population, while career and technical education, which could help roughly 65 percent of the population, gets about one-tenth of the resources that four-year programs get."

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