Tower Industry Faces Workforce Obstacles to 5G Deployment


Originally Published by AGL Media Group
Author: Don Bishop

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony from Jimmy Miller, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors, about employment in the tower construction and maintenance business.

The most significant challenge for tower construction and service contractors is the shortage of a properly trained and qualified workforce, chairman of NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, Jimmy Miller, said in congressional testimony earlier this year. The challenge involves attracting, recruiting and retaining a skilled, productive and safe telecom workforce, that is expected to possess the diverse skills necessary to produce the expansion of universal broadband, public safety and ubiquitous 5G wireless communications coverage, he said.

“Based on industry estimates, our industry has approximately 29,000 workers (whom we call tower technicians) as part of our existing labor pool,” Miller said. “According to recent projections, the industry could accommodate as many as 20,000 additional technicians over the next 10 years to meet current and future demands related to next-generation infrastructure and broadband deployment activities.”

These highly skilled technician positions must be filled by people sufficiently educated and trained in proper techniques and in the use of the requisite equipment, Miller said. He said that employers who train their own employees and the industry’s private training company providers can often get a technician through rudimentary safety training in two weeks, but he or she needs at least a year on the job to become competent at a specialty in which the employer works.

The NATE chairman said that the technical skills required of technicians continue to become more complex as next-generation technologies evolve.

Meanwhile, Miller said that to maintain the United States’ position as a global leader in 5G and accomplish the government and industry’s collective deployment objectives, NATE favors streamlining the processes at the federal, state and local levels to modify or eliminate what he described as unnecessary, expensive and often excessively onerous regulations.

Awareness and Information

NATE established its Workforce Development Committee to create awareness and provide information to individuals about the many career opportunities in the telecommunications industry, Miller said.

A major component of workforce development is the abundance of training available in the industry to develop and grow a skilled workforce, and Miller said that NATE facilitates training by providing best practices guidelines, standards and subject-matter expertise to ensure that minimum benchmarks are established in training curriculums. In addition, he said, NATE has as members about 25 private training companies.

Government Grants

Thanks to U.S. government training grants, Miller said, NATE has developed curricula that offer free training sessions. NATE also makes the training curricula available for companies and workers to use, he said. Miller spoke of NATE retaining GKF Consulting to develop an industry-specific needs assessment and workforce strategic plan.

Miller named Aiken Technical College in Aiken, South Carolina and the Wireless Infrastructure Technician program at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as having educational programs that should serve as models to emulate nationally to promote the professional career path opportunities available in tower construction and maintenance.

In urging members of the Commerce Committee to introduce and advance legislation that would support a House bill, H.R. 1848, the Communications Jobs Training Act. Miller said the proposed legislation authorizes $20 million per year for three fiscal years. It directs the FCC to carry out a competitive grant program to make funding available to develop classroom and field-based curricula and certificate programs at community colleges, vocational institutes and military organizations to attract and train a future pipeline of workers to build, deploy and maintain the next generation of wireless networks and related infrastructure.

A Senate bill, S. 2363, the Tower Infrastructure Deployment Act, is as another bill that Miller said NATE believes merits Senate support. “This legislation would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to establish a Telecommunications Workforce Development Advisory Council within the FCC to facilitate participation in industry-specific workforce development programs and identify ways to improve workforce development in the communications industry,” Miller said.

NATE also has provided an initial round of seed funding to support the launch of the National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA). As an assessment and certification organization, NWSA provides nationwide, portable worker credentials to tower technicians in progressive worker categories in an effort to ensure continued excellence and professionalism, Miller said. “The NWSA certification card is a source of pride for workers and is creating a career pathway for the industry’s technician workforce to follow,” he said.

Miller credited the Wireless Infrastructure Association with sponsoring the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). A member of the TIRAP advisory board himself, Miller said the program administers nine occupations critical to the development and deployment of 5G networks.

The apprenticeship uses a competency-based approach that measures the individual apprentice’s skill acquisition through a combination of specified minimum number of related technical instruction, on-the-job learning and the successful demonstration of competency in a variety of skills and safety protocols as described in a work process, the NATE chairman said.

5G Workforce Challenges

Miller said that, although the White House has made 5G workforce deployment a priority, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has yet to turn its focus on addressing 5G workforce challenges. “There need to be additional opportunities for companies and organizations to grow apprenticeship programs in the telecommunications sector,” he said. “It is my hope that some of these issues can be appropriately addressed and the process significantly streamlined to allow more workers to be trained in accordance with TIRAP training pathways and for employers to receive funding for some of the training.”

Apprenticeships

It is essential that the DOL place a priority on developing the 5G workforce through apprenticeships, Miller said, because as an industry of the future, 5G will create jobs in virtually every sector of the economy. “By some estimates, up to 22 million jobs will be supported by 5G,” Miller said. He said that NATE encourages Commerce Committee members to support    Senate bill S. 951, the Apprentice Hubs Across America Act of 2019. He said the legislation promotes registered apprenticeships within in-demand industry sectors through the support of workforce intermediaries.

Referring to attracting military veterans for technician careers, Miller said that NATE member organizations Airstreams Renewables and Warriors4Wireless are directly involved in training veterans for new careers as tower technicians. He said Warriors4Wireless provides training, advanced certification and transitional support. According to Miller’s testimony, in 2020, Warriors4Wireless projections include training and placing 280 veterans to employers and directly placing an additional 320 identified veterans to employers in the industry, for a total of 600 veterans assisted.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

Miller said that NATE believes unmanned aerial systems — drones — will play a role addressing the tower industry’s workforce shortage by maximizing the use of available manpower, without the loss of any jobs. “We estimate that the use of drones for tower inspections can reduce the number of climbs by tower technicians by as much as one-third, which will reduce risk to climbers while facilitating and expediting necessary tower work,” he said.

In the last several years, Miller said, NATE officials have conducted workforce development meetings and have forged relationships with representatives from third-party, national advocacy organizations. Among them are the Association of American Community Colleges (AACC), the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), Capitol Tech University, the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Urban League, the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC).

The immediate earning power for technician-level workers typically ranges from $45,000 to $70,000 per year with room for advancement and growth, and Miller said it is not uncommon for technicians to follow a progressive pathway of being promoted to a crew foreman, a construction manager, project manager and even a company executive-level role. “What other profession allows employees to be promoted on the way down — in our case — down a tower!” he said.

Turning to the subject of streamlining what he called the existing burdensome regulatory environment, Miller said it is imperative that the FCC prioritize implementing recommended processes as soon as possible to expedite 5G deployment. He identified two pieces of legislation, the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act and the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act as deserving of bipartisan support.

Wireless Innovation Leader

Miller said NATE also supports what he called forward-looking proposed legislation to implement the Industries of the Future Act of 2020 as a mechanism to ensure that the next generation wireless networks and the infrastructure jobs they create receive the appropriate level of research, development and funding to ensure the United States remains the global leader in wireless innovation.

In concluding his testimony before the committee, Miller said that NATE’s commitment to safety, education and training in constructing, maintaining and deploying communications infrastructure will never be compromised. “NATE members will do everything we can to help meet the wide range of national communications goals,” he said. “We want work to be done properly and efficiently, and we want our workers to come home safely. This is good for us, for you, for our nation’s economy, competitiveness and homeland security, and for our vital communications capabilities.”

Some Impediments to Growing the Tower Technician Workforce

● A lack of public awareness of the telecom industry’s career opportunities

● A dearth of industry programs at the community college/technical college level

● Competition from other industry sectors and construction trades

● The surging demand for new workers created by 5G deployment, rural broadband initiatives and projected new builds (explosive demand far exceeds supply)

● A decline in population growth (fewer students in pipeline)

● A lack of funding at the federal, regional, state and local levels

● An unwillingness to work at heights and extensive travel are barriers to entry for prospective workers

● A graying workforce unable to handle rigors of technician jobs

● A lack of awareness by parents, youth and adult workers of a viable career and pathway in the industry

Read original article at aglmediagroup.com.