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Can Innovative Approaches Help Tackle Telecom Talent Shortages?

Dec. 21, 2022
Learn how the telecom industry is creating multi-stake collaborations and new education programs to both attract and keep talent.

From multi-stake collaborations to new education programs, the industry is pushing hard to both attract and keep talent.

“This problem is not insurmountable. It’s going to take time to remedy the issue, but there are very logical steps that can be taken, and we just have to find more opportunities to take these steps.”

This is Josh Seidemann’s viewpoint—a fairly optimistic one at that—as to how the industry will need to address the talent challenges. Seidemann is Vice President Policy and Innovation for NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. The association represents 850 independent, family-owned and community-based telecommunications companies that deliver broadband connectivity in rural and small-town communities across the US.
Jim Hayes, President of The Fiber Optic Association (FOA), isn’t quite as hopeful. “Looking at the Inflation Reduction Act for 2022, which includes $40 billion in new funds to rebuild infrastructure all of which will involve optical fiber, it represents a doubling of the amount of work that is being done now. Who is going to do this work? We are already short of workers. No one is ready to answer this question.”

Hayes elaborates on this point reflecting on a call he received a few months ago from a state office that was overseeing a bid for a multi-billion dollar project involving fiber optics. “They asked us if we could find more contractors to bid on the jobs as everyone is so booked up that they were having a hard time getting people to even bid on jobs.”

While each of them approaches the workforce shortage from a slightly different perspective—Seidemann serves the rural market, while Hayes focuses on broadband for underserved areas—the one thing they agree on is the importance of not reinventing the wheel, as the expression goes. There are programs already underway through public/private partnerships that are addressing all aspects of the talent shortage.

Sorting Out the Issues

Before we talk about those, let’s examine some of the underlying factors that are causing the talent shortage in the industry.

“In the rural communities, there is somewhat of a brain drain,” says Seidemann. “A lot of the best and brightest kids in the rural community eye the big city as a place to build a career. However, that’s not the whole picture since there are a lot of people who like where they live and want to stay.” 

The issue for companies, notes Seidemann, is how much they are willing to put into training someone who might leave. “If you train a network technician properly so in a few years they have acquired tremendous skills, they might decide that they could be making more money in a larger city and leave.”

Of course, that is a problem all companies face as talent moves around a lot more than it used to. As the expression goes, “What if we train them and they leave, or what if we don’t train them and they stay?”

Training is essential, but retention becomes even more important. “Once you have the talent in your company, how do you make sure they will stick with you?” asks Seidemann. One way to increase retention is to pay attention to the needs of the current workforce. Seidemann gives this example. “A general manager of a small company at our conference said that one of his department managers was having an issue with a worker. The employee said his child plays baseball on Thursday nights and so he wants to structure his work schedule so that he can leave work by three to see him play. The general manager said he should do it. ‘We sold ourselves to employees as being family friendly, so we have to put our money where our mouth is.’”

Keeping close to the image that the industry has portrayed is necessary and seems to be working. According to the 2021 Randstad Employer Brand Research survey of almost 900,000 respondents, when asked which sector is the most attractive to work in, information and communications technology (ICT) came out on top. In 2020 the results were the same as far as ICT ranking at the top, but the most attractive part of the profession changed from use of the latest technology to financial health in 2022.

Kelly Mitchell, who was appointed to positions at the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Energy, will take the role of Executive Director for the Great Lakes Technical School for Utilities which will be launched in Q4 2023. It will be the “first all-encompassing technical school focused on underground utilities and telecommunications construction in partnership with major facilities owners”. The group’s goal is to create a diverse pipeline of qualified professionals.

A Model of Cooperation

Even with this positive perception, Hayes feels a sense of urgency in making sure the industry is doing enough to both attract and retain talent. “There are things that can be done, should be done, but need to be done with some urgency. We are at ground zero.”

Given the current process of workforce development, which is funneled through 50 different state agencies, Hayes says there are examples of some strong efforts being made. He notes that Kentucky has created a workable solution by bringing together a variety of stakeholders. In 2016, the FOA was involved in supporting a program called “Kentucky Wired” as the state had the lowest broadband availability in the US. The state authorized $360 million to build a backbone network to connect the 95 counties in the state. Local and public/private partnership would buildout the connectivity.

“We flew into Lexington and brought together 60 people, including people from the Governor’s office, contractors and representatives of colleges, and sat down for the day to figure out a plan. There are now nine colleges offering fiber optic programs that have thrived and supplied the technicians who build that state’s Internet backbone. And many of these students used to be coal miners. It’s an example of what you can do when you bring everyone together,” says Hayes.

Funding for Training Programs 

Bringing partners to the table to find solutions has been deemed so essential that it’s a requirement to receive a grant from the Department of Labor called Strengthening Community College Training Grants. The grant helps community colleges provide the skills needed by employers in high demand industries.

“To access these grants, a community college needs three industry partners,” explains Megan Beresford, Director of Broadband Programs, at Learn Design Apply. “The partnership needs to have a community college leading, but it can include public and provide non-profit four-year institutions, a workforce development system, and an employer partner. This partnership ensures that the community colleges understand exactly what skills students need to learn for jobs that are available. There is a huge demand for ICT skills.”

Beresford points out this level of cooperation creates a talent ecosystem for companies that are involved in securing these types of grants. “The more your company is involved with workforce training and working directly with community colleges, bringing in much needed funds for cutting-edge training and reskilling, the better your company looks to future employees. I’m working with some companies who are already in discussions with local community colleges to set up a training program for field technicians.”

There are other funding opportunities which Learn Design Apply has identified in this sector, including:

  • Appalachian Regional Commission POWER Grant—This initiative makes federal resources available to help communities and regions affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations, and coal-related supply chain or logistics industries due to the changing economics of America’s energy production and the coal economy.
  • USDA ReConnect Grant Program—Provides funding to assist in the development of essential community facilities in rural communities that have extreme unemployment and severe economic depression.
  • National Tribal Broadband Grant—Provides funding for Tribes to hire consultants to perform feasibility studies for high-speed Internet deployment or expansion in Tribal communities.

Training is essential, but retention becomes even more important. “Once you have the talent in your company, how do you make sure they will stick with you?” asks Josh Seidemann, Vice President Policy and Innovation, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association 

Widening the Talent Pool

Using grants for workplace training is one tactic, and starting up organizations, companies, and schools to find a variety of talent needed for both current and future jobs is another. In Grand Rapids, a community effort is doing just that. John Hendershot created the Black Lake Companies in July 2022, after working with many minority companies in his construction career. When the pandemic hit, the minority community was especially affected, and Hendershot wanted to create a coalition of companies that could prevent future hardships. The first company that has emerged from this network is the Black Lake Utility Contractors. “This industry has been a challenge for African-Americans due to barriers with regard to access to capital,” explains Ange Kramo, President and CFO of the company. Kramo’s full-time job is as a senior financial analyst at DTE Energy for the Gas Pipeline Division. “Combining my business experience with John’s network of companies, we see this as a lucrative space. We will open our doors in January of 2023 and aim to become a model for other minority companies.”

Attracting talent from minority communities to this industry requires a long-term strategy says Kramo. “Children need to be exposed to skilled trades from a young age. They need to explore these fields and understand what they are about. Ideally, they could find summer jobs working in these trades, while attending school. This would give them a broader vision of the many types of careers that are out there for them.”

Once interest in the field is created, specific training must follow. That’s where Kelly Mitchell fits in. She is opening the Great Lakes Technical School for Utilities and Telecommunications. Mitchell, who was appointed to positions at the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Energy, will take the role of Executive Director for the school which will be launched in Q4 2023. It will be the “first all-encompassing technical school focused on underground utilities and telecommunications construction in partnership with major facilities owners”. The group’s goal is to create a diverse pipeline of qualified professionals.

All of these efforts in terms of community-building and expanding educational opportunities is a direct result of a shift in the industry’s perspective. What was always done before needs to be reviewed, updated, and communicated to a workforce that has changed its needs over the past few years and will continue to view work from its own generational perspective. But the good news is that strides are being made and the industry seems committed to doing what is necessary. “It’s a whole paradigm shift that the industry is undergoing and because of that we’ll find the solutions we need,” says Seidemann.

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Senior Editor, Industry Week, EHS Today and MH&L

Adrienne Selko is Senior Editor, Industry Week, EHS Today and MH&L. She has been a journalist for 17 years specializing in workforce coverage.

For more information, please email [email protected] and visit https://www.industryweek.com/home/contact/22028843/adrienneselko. You can also follow her on Twitter @ASelkoIW.