Strategies to Foster Excellent Labor and Workforce Training for Rural Telecom
Coordinated efforts among the telecom industry, educational institutions, and government partners are necessary to train new workers and retrain current workforce participants.
There are three straightforward strategies to do this:
- The telecom sector leverages its insight into labor trends for its future and then identifies disciplines in which near- and long-term workers will require training.
- These firms then work with public and private educational institutions to develop curricula and training to meet those demands.
- Government partners can assist with funding that supports educational programs, as well as participating students and workers, including apprenticeship and “learn and earn” programs.
Interestingly, the White House issued a Talent Pipeline Challenge (TPC) aimed at filling jobs to build domestic infrastructure and supply chains. The TPC envisions a joint effort among employers, education, and state, local, and Tribal governments. This overall approach is consistent with that presented by NTCA in the recent Smart Rural CommunitySM (SRC) issue brief (www.smartruralcommunity.org) addressing telecom industry labor demands. The TPC, like the SRC brief, envisions a collaborative approach among community and regional leaders to formulate relevant curricula and hands-on training opportunities. The Administration notes as well that certain COVID-19 relief funding can be used to support these efforts and identifies programs under the respective aegis of the Departments of Labor, Commerce, and Energy as specific resources. These efforts can be a critical step toward further development of a skilled telecommunications workforce.
Middle Skills Matter
Telecom sector training can be divided into three broad categories: technical; customer service; and leadership/management. These include not only positions relating to the deployment of last-mile networks and customer-location equipment, but general contracting and construction, as well as back-office positions essential to deliver the services that these networks enable.
These opportunities can help create opportunities for students and current workers by coordinating with local educational institutions including high schools, community colleges, and trade schools to ensure that adequate career and technical education (CTE) training and guidance are available.
Many of these positions demand those with middle skills that can help the sector and help the students who are not participating in a post-secondary opportunity. For purposes of this discussion, “middle skills” is defined as those jobs requiring more than a high school diploma or equivalent, but not necessarily requiring a four-year college degree. Candidates for middle-skill jobs may obtain training through associate degrees programs, apprenticeship and journeyman positions, and traditional trade school training.
Secondary School Nuances
At the secondary school level, it is important that introductory offerings are presented in a manner that is relevant to young students. This can be accomplished by emphasizing direct links between everyday technology and the skills necessary to support the networks and systems upon which that technology relies.
These opportunities should be available to students, while they are still in high school, so they can evaluate careers that may not require a four-year college degree.
Consider what occurs when some post-secondary students begin their four-year college experience without having declared a major. Oftentimes students will take a year or so to identify a discipline or “major” that is most appealing to them. During that “year or so transition”, college affords students the ability to earn more general credits toward a degree in a four-year program.
That advantage is not available for students leaving high school and entering the trades or two-year college programs. They may not be able to devote a year toward non-declared coursework.
For purposes of this discussion, “middle skills” is defined as those jobs requiring more than a high-school diploma or equivalent, but not necessarily requiring a four-year college degree. Candidates for middle-skill jobs may obtain training through associate degrees programs, apprenticeship and journeyman positions, and traditional trade school training.
This is why it’s important to create opportunities for high school students to learn about and explore telecom sector career paths while they earn a high school diploma. These exploratory experiences could open their minds to a career in local telecom while also helping prospective employers.
The role of local industry in these efforts cannot be understated, particularly for communities that are committed to “growing their own”. Collaborations among schools and local industry come together to provider students with opportunities that inspire their curiosity about career paths in telecom.
Local rural telecom companies can work together with nearby educational and training organizations to offer students targeted classroom instruction and experiences that relate to local needs. These can be aimed at ensuring the proper skills, competencies, and understanding to facilitate success are right there at home. In a broader fashion, nearby communities can also work together to create these initiatives on regional bases.
In addition, internships and apprenticeship programs can provide experiential education that complements classroom learning. These educational and industrial experiences could inspire students and prospective workers IF they provide:
- effective instruction
- suitable instructors
- conducive learning environments
- proper “hands-on” laboratories
- immersive field experiences
Consider the power of such initiatives if local or state government education offices assist with certification or accreditation issues. Then add influence and funding from private industry or philanthropic organizations that would support educational facilities or offer stipends and/or scholarships to individual students. Veterans' organizations could also be consulted to assess interest for members separating from the armed forces.
Remote learning can supplement in-person learning experiences. While there may be “all online” learning options, it’s also necessary for students to obtain tactile, hands-on experiences. These could be achieved in laboratory or similar classroom settings where tools and materials are provided, or by pairing remote learning with “in the field/on the truck” experiences. In the latter model, communications providers could offer supervised work experience that is paired with student-employees’ online learning.
Such a program would increase its potency by partnering with an online educational institution. This would also allow the telecom provider access to a broad range of specialized courses that both new and current students could take. College credits could then be available for all students interested in furthering their skill sets in the telecom sector.
Now Is the Time
It is anticipated that in just one year, 92% of the US population will be Internet users. These will include not only traditional communications devices such as smartphones or computers, but also the ever-expanding range of devices to support consumer and industrial IoT at a predicted per capita rate of more than 13 connected devices per person.
Current data indicates that median US broadband speeds exceeded 140 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload as of January 2022. These trends in increasing broadband demand coincide with measures directing historic levels of resources toward broadband deployment. Combined, these factors create demand for a skilled telecom and technology labor workforce.
The rural broadband industry can play a unique role partnering with educational and other entities to facilitate workforce development.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
This article was adapted from the white paper: Labor and Workforce Development in the Rural Telecom Sector, SRC Issue Brief Spring 2022 by Joshua Seidemann, VP Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association (Source: https://www.ntca.org/sites/default/files/documents/2022-04/discussion-guide-for-rural-workforce-development-web.pdf)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seidemann is VP Policy and Industry Innovation, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. He has more than 20 years of experience in rural telecommunications and innovation research. For more information, please email [email protected] or visit www.ntca.org. Follow him on Twitter @josh_grok. Follow NTCA on Twitter @NTCAconnect and LinkedIn: company/ntca.