By Sam Sabin
May 6, 2020 at 4:10 pm ET
As the United States faces historically high unemployment during the global pandemic, seemingly few industries appear to be actively trying to expand their workforces. But the telecommunications and wireless industries, which have long struggled to fill jobs to build out 5G wireless infrastructure, could play a central role in getting Americans back to work.
With industry groups and Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr of the Federal Communications Commission saying in interviews that there are at least 20,000 available jobs for tower climbers to install equipment alone, stakeholders are banking on Congress to incorporate a few already introduced bills into future COVID-19 relief packages that would fund the buildout of telecommunications workforce training and apprenticeship programs to fill entry-level positions and ease some unemployment woes.
“That’s going to be a great opportunity as we look to get Americans back to work,” Carr said in an interview. “Relatively quickly, you can transition from whatever you were doing before — whether it exists now or it doesn’t exist now — into a good-paying job.”
The 5G workforce has struggled to recruit employees in recent years due to a lack of awareness about the industry’s employment opportunities and low unemployment rates that prompted tough competition from other industries. However, the pandemic has flipped this part of the equation, with telecommunications and wireless stakeholders optimistic that their companies could create a safe haven for displaced workers while they weather the recession.
Before the pandemic, momentum had been building in Congress to seek out legislative solutions for the dearth of workers available to build out the infrastructure needed for rollout of 5G wireless — including jobs that require climbing cell towers, laying fiber or installing backpack-sized box wireless transmitters called small cells that can be placed on the sides of buildings and other locations. Carr said he has seen industry estimates that show upward of 100,000 5G wireless jobs being available.
And to ensure more training of workers, industry group NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association is hoping Congress rolls up some of these bills into future coronavirus relief packages or other recovery deals focused on getting Americans back to work.
One bill with industry backing was introduced by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota (S. 3355) in February, calling for the establishment of a Department of Labor-led interagency task force to develop recommendations for addressing workforce needs. Carr has also tossed his support behind a bill (H.R. 1848) from Reps. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) to provide $20 million for a competitive grant through the FCC for universities, community colleges and technical education programs to train telecom workers.
A Senate Commerce Committee spokeswoman said in a statement that Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is considering the merits of all proposals to bolster the 5G workforce, and future legislation could take many forms, including regulatory relief to remove barriers to broadband deployment, new funding and new broadband programs. Thune said in a statement that he plans to continue his work to advance rural broadband and 5G across the entire country, noting that “in order to deliver these services, we need a skilled workforce in place.”
Jonathan Adelstein, president of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, the national sponsor for the Labor Department’s telecommunications apprenticeship program, said Congress must include funding for new training programs and other educational initiatives in any package allocating money toward increased broadband deployment.
“Congress needs to address this immediately,” said Adelstein, who was also an FCC commissioner under former President George W. Bush. “If we already have a labor shortage, additional stimulus would only exacerbate it” by creating more projects when there are not enough workers to carry out existing projects.
To enter the workforce, candidates typically don’t need any prior experience, with many employers either offering their own in-house apprenticeship programs or recruiting from certified educational programs at community colleges and technical institutes. Carr estimated that in about two to three months, an untrained worker could start these new positions with salaries beginning at “solidly middle-class wages” of about $60,000.
During the pandemic, where many industries have had to shed a large percentage of their workforce, NATE Chief Executive Todd Schlekeway said that the telecommunications industry has remained an essential service — especially given the increased reliance on stable internet connections amid social distancing guidelines.
“Our needs in our industry are greater than ever when it comes to the workforce,” said Schlekeway, whose group represents tower erection, maintenance and service companies. “The economic stability of this profession and the viability of it is immune from some of the ebbs and flows of the economy, and we’re seeing that play out right now.”
For instance, Fred Arnold, chief communications officer at the Learning Alliance Corp., which offers a third-party wireless job training program, said in an email that the company has seen a 23 percent increase in enrollment in its wireless industry training programs during the pandemic. Learning Alliance’s current training program, which has about 80 participants, is being offered mostly online so students can get started on their certifications without having to meet face to face.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a public interest group focused on providing better internet access, said the industry could target students who are reconsidering their post-graduate plans due to changing campus and job landscapes, as well as construction workers who have been laid off during the crisis.
But one obstacle could stunt this growth: the continued dearth of educational institute-backed training programs. The Wireless Infrastructure Association received a $6 million grant in February from the Department of Labor to expand the apprenticeship program, including new educational partnerships with technical schools in Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Kentucky to teach and prepare new workers. But until then, only a handful of programs exist nationwide at colleges and technical institutes to train the wireless workforce.
“It’s an opportunity that people don’t know about it,” Carr said. “We have to get into the high schools, we have to tell the story.”